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Leading Change — The Challenge of Ownership

Just like skydiving… When it comes to leading change, the difference between permission and ownership is the whole ball game!

This is the third dimension in the 3-D challenge of leading change. 1st was the strategic challenge, 2nd the human challenge, and this is the ownership challenge. I’d suggest this is the least talked about, the most subtle, and probably the most empowering.

Permission happens when a group of people grant approval to or withdraws their opposition to a proposal. They are literally giving their permission for the initiative to proceed.

Unfortunately, the frequent pattern finds these same people who gave approval early on, rising up to resist the deeper culture-changing steps of implementation later on. This resistance comes as a surprise, although it should probably be expected. It happens when the heavy-lifting of the new changes begins to intrude on familiar preferences or comfortable routines. Resistance rises when alignment to the change mandates new behavior or changes relational patterns.

A polite version of this resistance can sound like this.

Leader: “I don’t understand. We all agreed to go forward.”

Opposition: “Yeah, but no one told us we would have to do this. This is changing much more than we agreed to.”

Leader: “All of us will need to make sacrifices to make this work.”

Opposition: “But you are sacrificing things we like and the rewards don't seem worth the sacrifice.”

People often grant permission to a leader to progress with their plan, without truly understanding the personal price tag the changes will extract from them. When that price comes due for payment, permission alone doesn’t carry enough weight to win the day.

That’s where ownership is needed. Think of it this way:

Permission is what we give to your idea.

Ownership is how I feel about my idea.

I have a little mantra that helps me think clearly about how I need to lead in a moment when change is required.

If I say it, you will understand it.

If you say it, you’ll remember it.

If you discover it, you’ll own it.

If you own it, you’ll act on it.

Think of the entrepreneur who spends ungodly amounts of time and energy while risking everything they own to launch the business they are excited about. That’s the behavior of ownership.

When people own something, you don’t have to tell them to work hard, to make sacrifices, or to stick with it. Those internal motivations flow in abundance because people believe in what they are doing and in what it might produce. Sometimes, the greatest problem of ownership is maintaining a sustainable pace and not burning yourself out.

Whether you are a pastor who leads a congregation of vested volunteers or a business owner charting a new course for your employees, don’t be seduced into thinking that permission will get you home.

So, how exactly do you build ownership?

At some point, I will do a more detailed post on creating discovery-based processes, but here are a number of places where you can start.

  1. Invite participation in discovering and articulating what’s urgent. What’s not working, what need could you meet, what opportunity lies at your doorstep, or how has the culture begun to pass you by?

  2. Take influence leaders to visit someone or some other organization who is experiencing real success doing things differently. Then process your learnings and invite them to tell the story to the larger organization.

  3. Put together a dream team of people who represent your larger constituency and give them permission to dream about exponentially greater impact.

  4. Run a “3X Simulation.” Bring a group of people together to identify all the things that would have to change if you woke up tomorrow and you were instantly and permanently three times your current size. (Your sales, your congregation, your number of employees, or any core metric.) What would have to change? What doesn’t exist that would be needed? How are you operating that won’t work anymore?

  5. Identify those people who are actually modeling the preferred future and give them platform to tell their stories. Create a bias for and a longing to share in the fruit of those stories.

A large group does not need to be involved in the details of building a new plan to have ownership. But, involvement in helping identify the problem or opportunity to be addressed creates bias for change. In addition, a representative group should participate in shaping the big ideas of your response to that need or opportunity.

The more you short-change the process of building ownership, the more you increase the burden of leadership to sell and support and sustain the initiative. The more time and energy your spend building ownership, the more natural energy and organizational trust you will generate to help drive progress toward a new day.

Which would you rather have?

Coming Friday: Leading Change from the Back Door


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