Ownership at the right level

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Netflix is renowned for their motto “freedom & responsibility”. And that’s not just a recruitment slogan. The entire leadership structure is designed to embrace those concepts. For instance, leaders should avoid rules and focus on the people instead of the process. But that doesn’t mean that anybody can do anything whenever they want and cause a chaos. Yes, leaders will delegate responsibility to their people, and they will go through great lengths to ensure the goals the purpose, and thus the context, is clear to everybody.

But they will also expect certain things from every employee. Being responsible and follow-through on those responsibilities is one of them. Showing a proactive attitude and being aptitude to new opportunities and chances is another. Leaders expect them to make great long-term decisions instead of just patching the problem at hand. It doesn’t mean they should over-engineer their solutions or decide to rebuild something because they don’t like it though. But they do expect them to define how things should be and come up with a plan to reach that point. Again, it’s all about balance.

However, ownership is not an all-or-nothing concept. In fact, Netflix acknowledges up to five levels that each give a leader and its people a tool to clarify the expected/accept level of autonomy. The entry level is called demonstration and allows any developer to take some time to propose a new tool, technique or concept and to demonstrate its pros and cons, without explicit approval by a manager. This is obviously a great way to promote innovation. The next level of ownership is called oversight and allows an employee to implement some change or build some construct after pre-approval by the leader. After approval, the leader will need to keep oversight, but use empathy to gauge what level of guidelines this person needs.

A third level of ownership is called observation and makes the oversight more retrospective. In most cases a leader will only look at the result after its done and use that opportunity for long-term adjustments. He or she will most definitely not provide detailed feedback anymore. At some point, a senior engineer is expected to act at the execution level. In that case, the leader will mostly set the direction and will do some random check-ins to see if everything is going fine or any help or adjustments are needed. Eventually, if that engineer is doing this long enough or has the right skills and experience, he or she will start to shape the future and have reached the vision level.

Considering the different levels of ownership, you can imagine that this can cause some challenges, especially if the leader and engineer have a misalignment in levels. It’s therefor crucial to be very explicit about it, in particular when that level changes. And levels can go up and down, for instance when the kind of work changes or when certain things happen that requires the leader to increase the depth of oversight. Just be clear about any change, but have empathy for any emotional consequences of that. Netflix noticed that most failures of ownership are a failure to set the right context.

I’ve always struggled with the balance between full ownership and letting go of control. This model seems to resolve this in a very nice and explicit way. So what do you think of this approach? I would love to hear your thoughts by commenting below. Oh, and follow me at @ddoomen to get regular updates on my everlasting quest for better solutions.

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