Extreme Ownership: Vanquishing Diffusion of Responsibility

Verys is a professional services provider, which means we deliver defined projects for our clients. Each project has its special attributes – no two are the same. Some projects are very well defined upfront, while others lack that level of definition and require clarification during the project.

A Subject Matter Expert, often in the role of Product Owner, Technical Architect, or Project Manager, is sometimes made available as part of our software development team. Such a person can be relied upon to either know the answer to a question or to know precisely who to ask for the answer. SMEs have tremendous value in bridging the “information divide” between the business and the developers.

For whatever reason, the client may be unable to provide such a “go-to” person. When this happens, the technical lead on the project must assume the role of “SME in training.” Such a project will require a lot of clarification of requirements since the requirements (as represented in the Statement of Work) were also generated without an SME.

Our experience on a recent project has led me to discover leadership growth opportunities on several occasions, and I have been forced to adopt new strategies to achieve success. Employing these strategies has led me to embrace the concept of “Extreme Ownership,” which I have subsequently learned is the title of a book on leadership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babbin (Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win (New Edition) Hardcover – November 21, 2017). 

As I see it, there are a lot of parallels between an infantry squad in battle without air or sea support and a software development team with a missing or inadequate subject matter expert. The squad must take it upon themselves to own all the problems and challenges that stand in the way of their success. On the battlefield, the squad may be wiped out by bad leadership. On a software project, everyone will survive, but as we all know, failure of software projects has led to many job losses, in addition to catastrophic consequences for the client business and the professional services company.

Extreme Ownership requires the Team Leader to shoulder the responsibility for every failure of leadership – to own those failures. By choosing to own each failure, the Team Leader eliminates the tendency to assign blame and the tendency to rehearse the many shortcomings of other actors. Those tendencies are poisonous to the effectiveness and cohesion of the team and must be avoided at all costs.

Extreme Ownership means the Team Leader takes steps to ensure every team member “steps up” when conditions warrant. Each developer will encounter deficiencies that need to be addressed. For them to be addressed, they must be owned.

Extreme Ownership means that the Team Leader takes time to think deeply about strategy, allocation of resources, and how each team member will contribute to the progress of the work every single day. “What does it take for my team to succeed today?” is a great question to ask every morning. “What has kept my team from performing at their best today?” is a great question to ask every night. But those questions are far from sufficient.

Extreme Ownership means paying attention to the preparedness, attitude, and effectiveness of each team member. What does this team member need? Thinking about that person’s needs on the battlefield may be about little things like boots and socks. On a project team, it may be about a better breakdown of assigned tasks that better correlates with that team member’s skills, experience, and growth trajectory. Yes, a Team Leader should be thinking about each team member’s growth trajectory.

In conclusion, if you want to improve your performance in all the areas of your life, investigate the book “Extreme Ownership,” or listen to Jocko Willink’s TED talk. Find ways to adopt Extreme Ownership in your job, your marriage and family, and any social situation where success matters to you. 

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