Friday, October 14, 2005

Conditions of Ownership

In the Nonprofit Tech sphere, we have heard a lot about total cost of ownership and return on investment -- both of which are critical to understanding how best to introduce and support technology. What we hear less about are "conditions of ownership" -- what I believe it takes to successfully implement and sustain a technology initiative.

In keeping with the spirit of "At the Intersection," I'd like to introduce you to lessons learned about this topic from another field. While blogging, I recently stumbled across Peter Hunter, a British performance improvement consultant working in the oil industry. The bulk of his book Breaking the Mould focuses on his experience improving the performance of a South American oil rig. What he learned about conditions of ownership in the jungles of South America is wholly appropros for those of us helping nonprofits use technology.

Hunter was brought in to improve the time it took this oil rig to do certain things, the details of which involved moving around large pieces of machinery. While some might have expected him to create new policies or change the technology, he attended to "creating conditions of ownership" among those who worked on the rig. Instead of telling those people what to do and what not to do (which had been the primary mode of practice by managers leading up to this point), he focused on generating the respect, pride and responsibility achieved when human beings are empowered to make decisions about how things are done and then he support them in doing so.

When introducing a new technology and telling your staff "this is how we're going to use it," chances are, according to Hunter, that staff will NOT use it. "If people are told what to do, they will stop doing it as soon as they are no longer being told." Instead, he says, "people commit... because they've decided for themselves it is the best thing to do" and "when they decide what to do for themselves, the change is sustained."

This is why it's so important to engage staff -- especially the staff that is going to use the technology you want to introduce -- in the planning and decision-making about its adoption and use. What does this look like? Here's what I distilled from what Hunter had to say:

  • Bring curiosity to your communications with staff about technology planning and use. Instead of reacting with defensiveness or criticism, become curious about what it is that is important to this person. What is it about the issue at hand that most upsets them? Be curious.
  • Ask for suggestions and take those suggestions seriously. Demonstrate that you value their opinion. Never ignore an idea. When asked about improvements at the rig, one oil rigger suggested seat cushions for the 3-hour bus ride to/from the rig. While the manager was tempted to ignore this idea as irrelevant, Hunter pointed out that if he did so, this person-- who might have a major cost-cutting, time-saving idea tomorrow-- would withhold future suggestions because he had evidence that suggestions were ignored. (As it was, a more comfortable ride led to more relaxed, rested people working on the rig.) Therefore, try your hardest to do what they suggest even if the idea is not perfect.
  • If you must say no, explain why.
  • Ask them what went well about a recent change; ask them what they would have done differently. Then support them in owning and implementing those changes, not be telling them what to do, but by having them implement the changes themselves.
  • Provide them with ways to measure their success, to measure the change that they're seeking to make. "If they can see how they're doing, they can take pride in their performance." If they can't see how they're doing, there is no ownership.

Peter Hunter's book described the amazing success achieved when conditions of ownership were present and supported. Prior to his work with them, the owners in this oil rig were about to lose their investment due to poor performance that almost shut down the rig down; instead, this rig became a model of success for other rigs and staff were empowered to introduce, create and sustain new ideas that led to further improvements.

An organization risks wasting its technology investment if it does not build conditions of ownership. Nonprofits don't have the resources of the oil industry to hold them up when they fall. Therefore it's even more important to take "conditions of ownership" seriously.