Chapter 3. Building Trust and Ownership

The Big Ideas

Image In the Trust-Ownership Model, the diagonal is stable but the lower-left quadrant (Command and Control) is incredibly limiting.

Image Wherever you start, think of moving toward Energy and Innovation, the upper-right quadrant.

Getting to “Green”

So, how do we get to Energy and Innovation—the green?

Now we don’t want to be judgmental, so if you are fortunate enough to have a team and an organization that are already well established in the green, no need to read further. If, on the other hand, you are like us, and need to move up and to the right, the first step is to figure out where you are. In this chapter, we provide a set of questions for you, as the leader, and a set of questions for your team to help you figure out where you are and where your team thinks they are. Next, we talk about how to move from where you are to where you want to be. Finally, we start the conversation about common obstacles you may encounter—we call them walls—and what you can do about them.

This chapter is about how you move toward the green. In our discussion we reference tools that will help you in this quest and provide details of all the tools in Chapters 4 through 9.

Let’s start at the beginning—the assessment.

Trust-Ownership Assessment

The first step in moving toward a high-performance, innovative, motivated culture is recognizing—and being honest with yourself—where you are right now.

So how can you know where are you in the Trust-Ownership Model? (See Figure 3.1.)


FIGURE 3.1 Trust-Ownership Model

As a leader, where do you think you and your team are? Where do you think your team thinks you are?

Let’s look a little closer. And ask the team. The questions that follow can help you and the team to find out where you might be. It is always good to have the assessment done anonymously. Why? It is very difficult for leaders to admit they have a command and control style. They think they trust the team and the team won’t take ownership—they are in the black quadrant, Failure. Conversely, it is difficult for the team to face the fact that they might have abdicated their ownership or never even tried to take it. They feel they are too controlled—they are in the red, Conflict.

We have included a sample assessment form in Appendix BTrust-Ownership Assessment.

Assessment Questions

We want to assess on Trust (the y-axis) and Ownership (the x-axis). Honestly dealing with ambiguity is part of Trust, and we have added questions to address this. Because teams cannot take ownership without knowing what they are taking ownership of, we have additional questions to address business alignment.

There are two sets of questions: one set for the team to answer and one set for the leader to answer.

Remember, we are dealing with perception and there are no right answers. In general, we want to get answers to questions and learn about where the team is in terms of ownership.

We want to know the answers to the following questions related to the team members:

Image Do they feel trusted? Can they make decisions without being micromanaged?

Image Do they have the latitude to deal with uncertainty?

Image Do processes let them control important aspects of their lives such as how they do their work and how they organize their teams?

Image Can they take risks without the fear of punishment?

To determine whether the teams have ownership for aligned results, we want to know whether teams

Image Feel they can pursue different options to get to the goals.

Image Can identify how what they do affects company results.

Image Believe their work makes a meaningful difference in the lives of customers.

For leaders, the focus is slightly different.

On trust and ambiguity, we want to know how leaders answer the following questions:

Image How comfortable are you giving guidance and letting your teams define the path they will take?

Image How much experimentation do you allow?

Image How frequently do you, in order to save time or avoid risks, tell your teams what to do and how to do it?

Image Do you shield your teams from making commitments when there is still too much uncertainty?

On ownership and alignment, we want to know whether leaders

Image Spend a significant portion of their time describing why the teams’ work matters.

Image Actively look for ways to reduce distractions so that teams can focus on delivering.

Image Work every day to develop the skills, talents, and capabilities of their teams.

Image Over time become less and less involved in how the teams operate.

To make it simpler for you to assess where you and your teams are in the Trust-Ownership Model, we have created the following questions (which are also available in Appendix B).

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the lowest and 10 being the highest, answer the following questions.

For the team on trust and ambiguity (the y-axis):


For the team on ownership and business alignment (the x-axis):


For the leader on trust and ambiguity (the y-axis):


For the leader on ownership and business alignment (the x-axis):


You need to collect the data in a nonthreatening way so you can get real information. Then average the scores. Look at the distribution and look for patterns.

Now take a look at where you and your team are in the model (refer to Figure 3.1).

Where does your team think they are? Where do you think they are? The most telling combination is the team’s view of the trust they feel along with the leader’s view of the ownership taken by the team.

Leaders may think they trust their team. However, the assessment will let them know if the team really does feel trusted. On the other hand, leaders may feel the team is not taking ownership, but the team may feel they are not allowed to take it.

Now that you know where you are, in the following sections we talk about how to move to the Energy and Innovation quadrant, into the green.

Getting to Trust and Ownership

The Trust-Ownership Model is an interesting, possibly enlightening, and highly nuanced way to look at the role of leaders, processes, individuals, and teams in getting to a high-performance culture that is focused on and generates measurable business value. As is the case with most 2 × 2 models, the goal is to move into the upper-right quadrant.

(As an aside, I sometimes wonder if our heads would explode if the desirable state in a 2 × 2 model were in the lower-left quadrant—perhaps we simply cannot think of that position as being the goal.)

From the assessment in the previous section, you know where you are and what you want to move toward. Before we start on how you make that move, there are some observations we want to share with you.

The upper-left (Failure) and lower-right (Conflict) quadrants are not, over the long term, sustainable for individuals or teams. If there is constant conflict, people will tend to opt out by either losing their feeling of ownership, leaving the team or organization, or being asked to leave the team or organization. If there is continual lack of ownership, results will shrink and those who can will leave for opportunities that provide more ownership, or everyone will be invited to find something else to do.

Most organizations settle or stabilize in the Command and Control quadrant. Yes, we are aware that command and control has been in place and successful for many years. Given its long history, some might think that command and control is a viable option. But, while it has been the common operating model and has “worked,” it also seems that it is not the optimal operating model.

In a perfect command and control environment, an employee’s job is to place a widget into the correct place and then repeat this activity—forever. We tell the employee how to do the work and expect they will not do much thinking beyond putting the widget in the correct place. But in a dynamic, highly competitive market, we want the employee to do much more than place the widget. We want the employee to identify how to improve the entire process. We want the employee to question everything—perhaps we don’t even need the widget. For this to happen, we need the employee to think. However, command and control, at worst, discourages or, at best, severely limits independent thought. The more challenging the environment, the more command and control suboptimizes performance.

The history of the past decades is replete with “maverick” companies operating in the upper-right quadrant that have achieved amazing results. These include W. L. Gore (maker of Gore-Tex and an amazing array of high-performing products and divisions) and Semco (with its maverick CEO, Ricardo Semler). In rapidly changing environments and markets, the fundamental philosophy of command and control (the leader or the process knows everything and makes the majority of the decisions) renders it ineffective. We need to move diagonally from Command and Control to Energy and Innovation. In other words, to get to optimal performance we need to increase trust and help the team take ownership.

Because we all start at different places in the Trust-Ownership Model, let’s explore how to move from anywhere to the Energy and Innovation quadrant.

Moving Out of Failure

The Failure state results from high leader trust and low team ownership. The leader believes the team, left to itself, will do the right things. But because the team doesn’t know what the right things are or doesn’t care about finding out what the right things are, it pursues its own interest. Some leaders (or, more likely, managers or whatever we want to call persons in some authority position) are disengaged from the purpose of the organization or somehow cannot communicate that to the team. The team doesn’t understand the “why” or the “what.” Or the team might not believe in the goals or thinks they are unachievable. These managers assume that the team will know what needs to be done and do it. The managers have abdicated essential elements of their role and created a vacuum. And because the team does not feel ownership for the results, the vacuum remains. A leader cannot just trust the team and walk away. He has to help the team take ownership. In Chapter 5Ownership Tools, we introduce tools that leaders can use to improve ownership.

We believe it is extremely rare to move from Failure to Conflict. The manager would have to go from being disconnected to being controlling. At the same time, the team would suddenly begin to take ownership for results. This is very unlikely to happen in combination. That leaves us with two more likely moves. The preferred move is for the manager to become a leader and help the team take ownership by making sure the team understands the “why” and “what” of the organization, team, and project—while still operating in an environment of trust. It is also possible for the team to self-develop ownership by thinking through and understanding the “why” and “what” of their work, but this is rare. Most teams, once they have given up or not taken ownership, have reasons for doing so. A leader needs to understand how this happened or why it still exists. It could be they previously had a command and control type of boss or a boss who changed priorities every day so they gave up.

Some years ago, we worked with a team who operated in the Failure quadrant. They had weak product management and thus very little direction on the goals of their product. They did the best they could but did not feel any real ownership for the product sales or success. They did what they were told but were not told much, and so they did what they wanted. When we first met them, we challenged them on their approach. They responded with something of a victim mentality: We have no control over what is happening to us; if the company wants better results, the company will tell us what to do. We described to them tools like Purpose Alignment, the Business Value Model, the Four Questions, and the Billboard Test (all tools that we provide in Chapter 5) to help them see their customer’s viewpoint and needs. We helped them understand the “why” from their customer’s point of reference. We asked them to apply those tools to their product and to their work. Doing this created some energy on the team. The members of the team started thinking about their customers’ lives and how their product could make those lives better. They started filtering their product features and functions and project plans through what would provide the most business value—and did this in the absence of any real input from someone in a position of authority. Over time, their product got better and sales went up. The sales team started working with them directly in order to influence the product. In parallel, their official authority figure got on board—at a minimum, he had to explain why the product was doing so much better. In this case, the team led the transition. In other cases, the leader will be the one who directs the team as to the “why” and “what.”

It might also be case that the path from Failure to Energy and Innovation requires that the leader first exert more control in order to get to a more stable place in the Trust-Ownership Model. Wait, did you just read that correctly? In order to move toward trust and ownership you might have to reduce ownership or impose more control? Yes. If the current situation is trending toward Failure, you might first need to get things under control.

You might find that you need to reduce the chaos before you can accomplish anything. As a result, you might do detailed project reviews (a form of increased control). You might impose some processes (a form of increased control) in order to reduce mistakes. You might mandate certain standards (a form of increased control). Without this increased control, the chaos will continue or at least not be reduced fast enough that you can get to improvement. Without improvement, you will struggle getting to Energy and Innovation. As the team matures and takes ownership for results, you can decrease the controls you imposed.

Here is a quick, personal example that emphasizes this approach. I had been with the company in a non-IT role for about three months. In spite of my previous experience in various IT leadership roles, I wanted nothing to do with IT nor was that expected. But as the company went through its preliminary Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX)1 audits, it was clear that the IT controls were lacking enough to put SOX compliance at risk. And for a publicly traded company, failing a SOX audit was close to the death penalty. The CFO and treasurer came to my office and asked me to “take one for the team” and take on the role of CIO to ensure that there would not be any issues with SOX compliance in six months when the official SOX audit hit. The CFO and treasurer had valid concerns because the IT team had already failed the preliminary audit.

1. A law requiring top management to individually certify the accuracy of financial information.

I spent a couple of days assessing the IT situation and found an IT team that was in the Failure quadrant. The previous IT leader—who kept a role in IT, now as my critic—had pretty much abdicated any leadership in getting to SOX compliance. He did not know enough about effective IT controls and so had turned the project over to his staff. The members of his staff felt they were getting no direction on what needed to be done. They felt ownership for their individual operating processes, but SOX compliance was such a nebulous concept for them that they could not make headway on what needed to be done. As a result, nothing was being done. After they failed the preliminary audit, I would have expected the team to get together, identify the issues, discuss and agree to the solutions, and then do what needed to be done. In this case, failing the audit just seemed to confuse and depress everyone in the IT group.

With such a massive project on such a short timeline, I knew that the biggest danger was the current unstable situation—we had to start making progress and quickly. I would have loved to move the entire team and project to the upper-right quadrant immediately by increasing the ownership, but ownership of what? The team did not know enough to be owners. To get to ownership, I had to first inject more control and become a much more involved leader than the CIO I’d replaced. But how could I do this? I met with each person individually and had them walk me through their processes. Together, we compared their processes to a baseline set of IT best practices. I explained that we needed to move from their process to the best practice. In one case, they were using a unique method for moving changes from testing and into production. I required them to use a process based on the ITIL standard. In doing this, I was asking them to “turn off their brains” and comply with the best practices. I promised that not only would this approach ensure SOX compliance, it would make their lives better. They would gain time back in their lives by doing things in a best practices way. Right then, I needed them to adhere to the control I was imposing on them. I suppose in an effort to keep the new boss happy, they implemented the best practices and we breezed through the SOX audits. But to get there, we had to first get closer to that all-important diagonal by temporarily increasing leadership control.

Moving Out of Conflict

“This is ridiculous!” Janet was a senior executive leading a delivery team of 1,300 and her boss had just dropped his version of her goals for the year. His redlined version of the goals she had submitted removed all the leadership goals and added an extensive list of project measurements that he wanted her to report on every week. She was being treated as a manager of tasks, not as the leader of a delivery organization that was essential in defining and implementing the organization’s strategy. The new goals left no room for innovation, idea generation, or continuous improvement. And the time required to collect the detailed project measurements would reduce the time her team would have to deliver. Janet was in the Conflict quadrant. Her boss wanted to define how Janet did her job. She felt ownership for the company objectives. How could Janet resolve this conflict? If her boss insisted on controlling where Janet felt ownership, she would likely leave the organization—and the organization would lose a talented leader. In spite of Janet’s best efforts to work through the conflict—explaining her rationale for her approach, pointing out best practices, emphasizing how her boss could focus on more strategic needs by letting her own her results—her boss was insistent that she do things his way. In the end, Janet chose to avoid the frustration and left the company.

You can move from Conflict but it is a more nuanced move. The conflict exists because the team feels ownership but the manager wants to control their actions. This transition requires that the manager become a leader by trusting the team and relaxing the controls. It is highly unlikely that the team can make this transition by itself—the leader must change. If the team owns the wrong things, the leader can exert more control as to the “why” and “what” but must then quickly move toward a culture of trust because if the conflict remains, either ownership will suffer or the conflict will be significant enough to drive people away.

We once worked with a leader who operated in a blame culture. If something went wrong, the company president wanted someone to blame. This blame culture generated many negative traits but, perhaps most important, reduced risk-taking and experimentation. People were more concerned about being wrong than they were with getting things right. The leader wanted to move from an environment of command and control (sometimes bordering on conflict) but recognized his inability to—at least quickly—change the blame culture. In order to move his team into the upper-right quadrant, he took the blame for any mistakes or missteps his teams made. When the president looked for a scapegoat, the leader accepted responsibility. The leader did this in order to move his team to Energy and Innovation, and it worked. To make this happen, the leader had to develop an immense stockpile of credibility with the rest of the organization—particularly the president. Obviously, if the leader was taking the blame for any mistakes, he had to make sure that mistakes were few and far between. He spent an incredible amount of time improving his team’s delivery by creating a culture of trust and enabling ownership. And this approach worked so well that the president rethought his knee-jerk reactions and stopped looking for someone to blame.

What is missing when a team is in the Conflict quadrant? Trust from the leader and/or processes and an easing up of the leader’s controls. To move the team from Conflict to Energy and Innovation, the leader starts by creating a culture of trust (a tool for this is provided in Chapter 4Trust Tools). Then the leader must give up his control over the team and begin to relax or shield the team from all controls.

In many organizations, there are plenty of examples of controlling processes—processes that exhibit a complete lack of trust in the individual or team. These range from employee appraisal processes to status reporting to purchase approvals.

“What are you doing?” we asked a senior leader of a reasonably large organization (with annual revenues of over $400 million).

“I need to buy something for $3,999 and I have to fill out eight purchase orders.”

“Why not just do one order?”

“I only can approve $499. Every purchase order of $500 or more has to go all the way up to the president. And that approval cycle takes a really long time. But I need this equipment as soon as possible.”

“$500? Really? But you are responsible for an annual budget of $120 million.”

“Still, the policy is what it is. So we have all become skilled at breaking our needs into $499 purchase orders.”

This bothered us enough that we scheduled time with the company president.

“Dan,” we started, “Why can your leaders only approve purchases of up to $499?”

“Purchasing was out of control. I had to do something to get it under control. I figured that if I personally approved any purchase of $500 or more, we would stop wasting so much money.”

Dan showed us his purchase order inbox. It was stacked with purchase orders waiting for his approval.

“When you review these, do you understand the rationale for the purchase order?” we asked.

“Sometimes I do. Other times, I call the requesting manager and have him explain it to me.”

“How much time of your time does it take to review and approve the requests?”

“I usually allocate Friday afternoons to work through whatever is in my stack,” Dan answered. “That way, approving the purchase orders does not interrupt my week.”

“How many purchase orders have you ever rejected?”

He thought for a moment. “None.”

“Why, then, do you go through the exercise of reviewing them if you always approve them?”

“Well,” he thought for a moment, “if I review everything, then people will only ask to purchase what they really need.”

“Why don’t you just hire people whose judgment you trust?”

Even though our question was a bit tongue-in-cheek, he paused, this time longer, and said, “You are right. I guess I really don’t trust that, without my review, they will make good decisions.”

“Can you trust your managers? Is there anyone, besides yourself, you can trust?”

This president changed his policy. He gave his staff departmental budgets and goals and let them manage inside what they owned. And, to his credit, not only did he change how he managed but also how he led—he started to focus much more on the direction of the company and less on approving purchase orders.

As this example highlights, it is really up to the leader to increase the trust and decrease the controls, whether that control comes from the leader or from the processes that the leader implements or controls. So if the team is to move from Conflict to Innovation and Energy, the leader is the person who can make that happen.

Recognize that even when leaders behave with visible honesty and integrity it will be some time for the team culture to become the same. Even a single instance of negative behavior can do real damage to this, and once the team believes that the leader or company is not to be trusted it can take a very long time to rebuild.

However, once a culture of openness, integrity, and honesty is in place it becomes self-sustaining. The motivation and energy generated are rewarding to the entire team and enable them to maximize their delivery of value to the business.

Take a minute and think about the processes in your organization. How many of them, in any way, show a lack of trust?

Moving Out of Command and Control

As mentioned previously, Command and Control is the typical model. The leader (or process) makes the decisions and everyone else complies. However stable and normal this is, it is suboptimal and becomes more harmful depending on the pace of change in the market and environment—and today the pace of change is accelerating.

In looking at the Trust-Ownership Model, the solution is obvious—increase both trust and ownership (see Figure 3.2). That sounds nice but it is a challenge, primarily because Command and Control is normal and accepted. To move up the diagonal requires that both the leader and the team change what they do.


FIGURE 3.2 Move up the diagonal.

This almost certainly requires behavior change and, as we all know, behavior change can be difficult. Those pesky humans have shown an amazing ability to be change averse. When it comes to changing behavior and culture, there is an incredible amount of uncertainty. We don’t know how people will react to being given more ownership. We don’t know how people will respond to our increased trust. We don’t know whether they will embrace the changes or fight them. In other words, there is an incredible amount of uncertainty anytime we deal with those pesky humans. And, what is the current best way to deal with uncertainty? Use iterative methods!

Using the Trust-Ownership Model, we want to move our teams and organizations to the upper right. To make this move, we suggest doing it a step at a time with a pause after each step to learn and adapt.

What worked? What did not? What do we need to change as we take the next step toward trust and ownership?

For example, the move from Command and Control requires that the team begin to take ownership by making sure that they deliver on their commitments. Meeting a series of frequent commitments starts to build trust. Once the team has demonstrated the ability to follow through on their commitments, many enlightened command and control leaders will start to see the value and will move up the diagonal by trusting the team more. As the team gains trust from the leader, they take on more ownership and control shifts from the leader to them. The process is reinforced as each step of increased ownership is followed by delivery, which results in increased trust. A key aspect of this cycle is the delivery on commitments. If a team takes ownership and then commits to unreachable goals, the cycle will be broken and trust may actually regress.

Other leaders will be so entrenched in Command and Control that they cannot move. The team will try to take ownership but there will be resistance and the team will be in Conflict. In this situation the team must take more proactive steps in managing up (see Chapter 8Tools to Deal with Walls). Managing up refers to the actions we take to manage the expectations and actions of those to whom we report. If the team reports to a micromanager, there are things the team can do to create some space and freedom from the oppression of Command and Control.

Likewise, the leader must get out of the business of making the small “how” decisions and focus on the big “what” and “why” decisions. This takes a leap of faith for both the leader and the team. From the leader’s perspective, it was probably in part due to your decision-making track record that you are in a leadership position. You now have to walk away from something that led to your success and position.

The team must look for and take on more ownership and responsibility. The members of the team should individually and collectively look for decisions that they could and should own. This implies that they will ask and learn enough to understand the purpose of their work. If the leader is unwilling to give up that control, the situation moves toward conflict. But let’s assume that is not the case—the leader develops trust and the team takes ownership. This creates a virtuous—but counterintuitive—cycle in which the leader’s increasing trust is rewarded with better ownership and results and the team’s ownership helps the leader fill the true role of a leader—setting the direction and vision and getting out of the business of making small decisions.

Please recognize that this might be uncharted waters for everyone—the leader, the team, the leader’s leader, the team’s peers, et cetera. That is why this book emphasizes tools that help not only the leader and team make this transition but also the operating culture of the organization. A trusting, owning culture is different from a command and control culture.

Uncharted waters exactly. And like all the hazards that come with such waters, combined with uncertain weather, the challenges and barriers will arrive.

Hitting the Walls

“Things are going okay. Why should we change?” Some people will like it the old way and won’t want to change. Some people don’t want to collaborate and won’t. Here are more examples. You probably have more of your own.

Image I need permission.

Image Our leaders have to change first.

Image It will never work in this culture.

Image It’s a fad—I can lie low and wait it out.

Image It’s not my job.

Image We can’t do this until we have shipped this release.

Image There are non-collaborators here we can’t work with.

Image The process police.

Image The organization requires waterfall processes.

Image The organization won’t accept uncertainty.

Image I don’t have anyone to replace the anti-bodies on my team.

Image I’m too busy.

Image People believe the leader is more interested in blame than in learning.

Image People are not mature enough to take responsibility.

Image People are comfortable not being accountable.

We call these walls, which you might encounter in your transition. Why do we call them walls? Because they stand between you and your team moving to the green.

There are many ways to deal with such walls: Go around them, create a door or window through them, tear them down completely, and remove them. What is most likely going to happen is you will be cruising along and bam! You’ve run right into a wall. We provide an entire chapter on the tools to help you (Chapter 8Tools to Deal with Walls) but you have to provide your own first aid (sorry).

In Summary

We all want to move into the green, Energy and Innovation. But the movement can be difficult. First, assess where you are and where your team thinks you are. Then begin the movement toward the green using the tools provided in the next four chapters. And when you hit a wall? We have several tools to help in Chapter 8.

Remember, it is the leader who ultimately creates the Trust-Ownership culture.