Late News

Companies have long embraced job ‘ownership,’ but there’s a better model

“Who owns the Refund Processing for American Builders?” Jane came rushing to my desk on a rainy January afternoon with a look of urgency. Our office was always bustling with engineers, product managers, and business development folks hustling to create something new. “Well, you know how I feel about ‘ownership’… what problem are we trying to solve?” I replied. Jane knew the drill but still couldn’t break the habit, having spent 10 years working with product owners in companies like Twitter and Google, and two smaller startups in the gaming industry. It took us 10 minutes to understand the issue at hand and dispatch a task force comprised of two engineers, neither of them ever having “owned” the refund payment processing before. Nevertheless, they were fully qualified to support our partner, and by the end of that day, they had identified the problem and its root cause, issued a fix, and written a quick wiki page on how to troubleshoot it in the future. Not bad for a project without an owner.

Our approach relies on Dynamic Team Assignment (DTA). And while it may sound counterintuitive, abandoning the ownership model was the best thing I ever did for my team.

Similar to my colleague Jane, technical leaders often default to the idea of ownership. Everyone from project managers to engineers are encouraged to “own” their domain, becoming a subject-matter expert and single point of contact for their respective area of responsibility. As with many trends that emerge from Silicon Valley, this model may be best exemplified by Apple, which famously assigns a directly responsible individual to every project.

The ownership model has worked well for some companies, however, team management doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a one-size-fits-all approach. Too much stability tends to stifle innovation, which is why the processes