The Collaboration Hierarchy: Promoting Collective Ownership

The third installment of a 5-part series

At this point in our series on the Collaboration Hierarchy, we have covered topics like Starting with Trust and Setting Clear Expectations. The next step towards fostering a collaborative culture is to actively promote collective ownership. Collective ownership is the notion that a team's successes and failures are shared. Each member has to step up, become a leader, and contribute candidly.

Ahead 2/3rds

In his book ‘Turn the Ship Around’, Captain Marquet asked, “What happens when the leader is wrong in a top-down culture?  Everyone goes off a cliff."

Captain Marquet was promoted, given his own command, and was to take charge of the USS Olympia, a fast attack submarine. Two weeks before taking command, he received a phone call and was informed that he would be taking command of the USS Santa FE, a newer submarine. 

The only problem was that Captain Marquet spent a year studying the Olympia. He knew it inside and out, and now he didn’t have time to learn everything about the USS Santa Fe. On top of that, his crew was ranked last in all of the measurements the Navy had.

Captain Marquet knew how to bark orders and be in charge of a 2 billion dollar, football-field-sized vessel. After all, he was the Leader.

One of the first orders of business was to shut down the nuclear reactor and have the crew run through a drill.  Battery backups came on-line and the sub kept moving forward. To really put the pressure on this slipshod crew, Captain Marquet thought it would be a good idea to push them harder.  He decided that running the sub at 2/3rds the max power would force the crew to work harder and faster. 

He told the Officer on Deck, “Ahead two-thirds”, and the Officer on Deck repeated to the helmsman ‘Ahead two-thirds’.

Nothing happened. 

The submarine didn’t increase speed. When Captain Marquet looked up, he could see the helmsman squirming in his seat.

 “Helmsman, what’s the problem?”, asked Captain Marquet.

“Sir, there is no two-thirds setting.” replied the helmsman.

As Marquet describes, organizations tend to have a leader-follower culture instead of a leader-leader culture.  We don’t typically speak up until it is too late, and we don’t encourage people to take ownership and respectively disagree.

In the 2017 Human Capital Trends report by Deloitte Insights, only 14% of executives believe that the traditional organizational model—with hierarchical job levels based on expertise in a specific area—makes their organization highly effective. Instead, leading companies are pushing toward a more flexible, team-centric model.

In the story, Captain Marquet recalls asking the officer on deck if he knew that there was no 2/3rd setting. The Officer replied that he did and Captain Marquet asked,

“Then why did you issue the order?”

The response was, “Because you told me to.”

That reminds me of the question we have all been asked by our mothers: “If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it to?”

If we don’t set clear expectations and encourage individual leadership and accountability, we cannot expect people to take ownership.

Adopting Collective Ownership on Your Team

James Betteley rephrased Collective ownership in his article “On Collective Ownership and Responsibilities”, saying, “I much prefer the concept of shared ownership and collective accountability." He tries to encourage all of the members of his team to think the following:

  • How does your code build?
  • How do the tests execute?
  • How good are the tests?
  • How good is the code?
  • How easy is it to deploy?
  • How easy is it to maintain?
  • How easy is it to monitor?

As already mentioned, transitioning a team to scrum illustrated the challenge of ownership and setting clear expectations. Part of that ownership and accountability is our ability to measure success.

In the case of development, we might have burndown charts for sprints and release date estimation reports. We do daily standups and hold sprint retrospectives so that we know what people are working on and if there are any blockers. Also, we want to know what’s working and what’s not. 

Without having metrics, we don’t really know where we are relative to our goals. One way to capture metrics on your process is to utilize productivity and communication tools that automatically capture that data. Once you have measurements, then your entire team can own their progress.

Jocko Willink, a former US Navy SEAL, has written extensively on collective ownership and sums up nicely in this quote from his book, Extreme Ownership

"Implementing Extreme Ownership requires checking your ego and operating with a high degree of humility. Admitting mistakes, taking ownership, and developing a plan to overcome challenges are integral to any successful team."


Stay tuned for our next post in this series, "Opening Communication Channels".

If you want to read the full ebook on "Building a Development Culture of Collaboration", you can download it here:


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