When projects fail because ownership is not shared

Have you ever asked yourself why projects fail? There are many studies out there that shed some light on this question. PMI, IPMA, McKinsey, BCG and all the biggies continuously write and highlight the facts contributing to project failure. COVID-19 has also taken its toll and contributed to one of the most mentioned failure reasons…ownership. 

Please raise your hand if you never played “Hide and Seek”. I cannot imagine that there is anyone that never played the old and popular children’s game in which one player leans on a wall or tree and closes his or her eyes and counts to 100 while the other players hide. The seeker then opens his eyes and tries to find those hiding. Once he or she finds the first hider both run to the spot of counting. The first one to touch it shouts out the name of the other. If the hider comes in first, he is safe and becomes the new seeker; if the seeker wins the run, the hider is out of the game; and it goes this way until the last is the winner of the round. Of course there are several variations of the game, but this is basically it.

But why do I talk about “Hide and Seek”? 

Well…I have experienced some projects in my life in which we have been called in to help out because they are failing and literally see people trying to hide from their responsibilities looking at excuses for not owning their assigned work… and somehow in the last couple of months I have had the impression to run into projects in which people try to hide not only behind others but also behind the bad internet connection, the home-office-setting, the “not being able to visit you in your office” and have a short chat. The thing bothering me is that this seems to be increasing everywhere. And I am not only talking about the project manager (PM), the product owner (PO) or the scrum master (SM), I am talking about the whole project team and sometimes other stakeholders.

So, I asked myself why does this actually happen and why is it increasing? In my eyes the key word here is ownership. 

The Cambridge Dictionary says ownership is “the fact that you own something” – “the state or fact of owning something” and “the fact of taking responsibility for an idea or problem”.

In my opinion ownership in projects requires not only a well prepared plan and a lot of communication but the belief that your people are going to deliver and your encouragement and empowerment as a project manager, a product owner and a scrum master. It is not just saying that someone is responsible for a work package. A lot more belongs to the process of internalising that responsibility and really OWNING IT. Here are some thoughts:

Simple Direct Specific Language

“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” – Leonardo da Vinci.

Nothing is more disassociating than being asked the following question: “Who wants to take this work package over?” 


…I mean, not only are you saying that you are not willing to take over that work package, you are talking to everyone in the room. And let’s be honest hmm, I would argue that in 90% of the cases you already know who in your team is able to take over which work packages. 

My personal recommendation is to be very specific and use simple direct language when describing the work package, including what is accepted as a good quality of delivery (definition and criteria of done) and talk directly to the person you think would be more fit to do the work. The best is, if you have also a second person already in mind in case your first candidate has acceptable reasons for not doing it. 

When using this method, you are not only passing ownership over a certain work package, you are also giving the team a message. That message means, the PM, PO considers us worthy to be responsible. It is important though, that you ensure that every single team member gets his part in the project and that you do not step into favouritism. I recommend to use this as a general rule for your team in all meetings.

Identification and Sense of Belonging

“The success of a vision is determined by its ownership by both the leader and the people” John C. Maxwell

Identification means that the individual’s view of himself or herself overlaps with his or her perception of the project. So here we are talking about the “ME”. Do I as a person identify myself with the project or not? If this important step is missing, there will be no sense of belonging. Identification requires that my set of values and personal beliefs agrees – has a common ground – with what the project is aiming to achieve. If from the beginning I am against it or doubting it, then it will be very difficult for me to identify with it. This is a very important aspect in transformation programs. There will always be some staff, that are reluctant to change and the only way to change this is constant communication and finding opportunities for the No-Nos to shine and become an asset. It requires intensive care. So if you as the PM or PO or SM are able to choose the team, make sure that the vision of the project is shared by the team. Talk about that vision constantly, not just at the kick-off or start of the project.

For the sense of belonging, the team plays a big role in it. So here we talk as well about the “WE”. It is important that every team member feels he or she is a part of the team. In my own words, I would say that you achieve that when I, as a team member am able to participate, contribute, all others see in me as an equal and I have the feeling that I am adding value to the team. This means, that you as a PM or SM have to ensure, that the team runs smoothly and everyone is involved and taken care of. Does this mean, that everything should be peace, joy and happiness? Not at all! Of course discern will occur in every team, and discern should occur, the question is how you manage it. As a PM or SM you should make sure that when discern in the team arises, you as a team canalise it in a respectful discussion aiming always at finding a solution for the issue at hand.

Once people identify themselves with the project and develop that sense of belonging, ownership over their own tasks will flourish. The worst thing you could do, is to patronise your team members.

If someone comes to you with an issue, pay attention, hear them out and help them to find a solution. If you do that by asking the right open questions you won’t take over the ownership of the issue. You would be encouraging them to find their own solution and believe me in most cases people do know the solution, they only need some guidance to feel secure about it.

Please also avoid such things as telling people things like they always or never do something, giving compliments with a real reason, using demeaning nicknames like “girl”, “honey”,” chief” or similar and when working in intercultural environments please never interrupt someone to correct their pronunciation. If you do not understand something, then ask, but do not diminish people in front of others.

A big part of empowering a team is really walking the talk. If you want your team to embrace specific behaviours, one of the least efficient ways to go about encouraging those behaviours is to order people to do it. You know…just simply lead by example. Do you want your team to be on time to meetings? Ensure you’re always there early and ready to go. Want them to hit deadlines? Have all your work done on time. Do you want to own their work packages….then my friend…own yours. Do not let the “inner pig dog” or the Mañana Syndrome overcome you. See blog https://www.3e-success.com/the-covid-manana-syndrome-tomorrows-another-day/

Showing how you want something done is much more effective at empowering people than telling them what to do.

Always remember: 

“The inventory, the value of your company, walks out the door every evening.” – Bill Gates

The stage is yours – Share Successes

One immense boost in ownership in a project team is when you as a PM or PO recognise successes and do that publicly within the team and ensure that the recognition also goes up the ladder into the higher levels of the organisation. 

Please do not steal achievements from your team members. Make everyone aware of them and let the team member be the hero of the moment. I assure you, that team member will never forget that.  

Recognition isn’t just about implementing some employee program or distributing expensive gifts, it’s about bringing out the best in people and improving your work as a team.  Public recognition is a great way to celebrate an achievement. 

Recognition isn’t just about implementing some employee program or distributing expensive gifts, it’s about bringing out the best in people and improving your work as a team.  Public recognition is a great way to celebrate an achievement. 

“Responsibility equals accountability equals ownership. And a sense of ownership is the most powerful weapon a team or organisation can have” Pat Summitt

All in all, please think about the following: business owners, managers and project managers dream of having employees who can think like entrepreneurs. However, they can’t think like owners if they’re treated like employees. Thus, you need to find a way to help your team internalise the need to do a task and importance of taking ownership of the project. Project ownership creates team members who are willing to look in the mirror and examine their personal contribution.This culture of personal accountability is achieved by having retrospective sessions on the way how your team is working. Those retrospectives will only function properly, if the team is really owning the project. If not, then it becomes a “Hide and Seek” game.

By the way I loved that game during my childhood in Colombia. The last hider took over the responsibility of “saving” all caught hiders, by shouting at the spot of counting after the run to it “POR MI Y POR TODOS”. He or she took ownership over saving their lives!

We at 3E believe that PEOPLE, PROCESS, CULTURE AND SYSTEMS should be in sync in order for you to be successful. We believe that agile methodologies at every level of an organisation are the answer to cope with the disruptive elements around the world because they minimise risks, they reduce costs, they are flexible and can adapt to new developments at every time, and they increase the delivery speed or time to market.