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3 ways to get your team to own the project

If you’re an entrepreneur or are leading a significant project within your organization, it’s vital to develop a sense of ownership among your team members. This is difficult to do on any project, but is especially hard when you have a multinational team with a mix of native languages and cultural backgrounds. In China it’s even more difficult because you are working against a culture that traditionally values blindly following the leader, and where risk-taking can lead to a loss of face.[1]

This sense of ownership has to be built into the team from the start of the project. But I can tell you from personal experience that it’s not enough to just tell the team you want them to “own” the project. You need to cultivate this ownership at every step of the project and reward team members whenever they take ownership. Here are three things you can do to help build this sense of ownership on any project.

1. Start building ownership in the project kickoff meeting

The best time to start building a sense of ownership is during the project kickoff meeting. The kickoff meeting lets you set the tone for the rest of the project, so it’s important to go into this meeting with a plan to get the project off on the right foot and build a supportive team culture. Your main goal during this meeting is to share your vision so everyone is heading in the same direction.

When you’re expressing your vision for the project make sure you show how excited you are about being part of this team. Discuss the problem you are trying to solve, and how you think the team will solve it. Don’t just tell everyone that they are an important part of the team with a blanket statement; to really build ownership, explain what role each person will play on the team. For example, you may say, “Lily, I know you have a deep understanding of this customer segment so I’m counting on you to ensure we’re addressing their needs throughout this project.” Doing this for each team member will increase their individual sense of responsibility, clarify expectations, and make everyone feel like they have something to contribute.

Don’t worry if you don’t have a strong vision for the project, or if the team has been formed to create that vision. Just say that you chose these individuals to be part of the team because you know they are visionary. Empowering the team as a whole, and each person individually, is crucial to building a culture of ownership.

2. Ask “What do you think?” before giving your opinion

During the project kickoff meeting you sowed the seeds of ownership and a productive team culture. Now, for the rest of the project, it’s your job to foster that team culture so it keeps growing, providing guidance when necessary. As the entrepreneur or project lead, it’s easy to offer your opinion when the team is choosing from among different options. Instead of expressing your opinion first, try asking the team “What do you think?” to reinforce that their opinions matter.

What do you think? — four potent and irresistible words. What we know is that the need to be heard turns out to be one of the most powerful motivating forces in human nature. People want to be heard!” — From Power Questions (See link in the Related Reading section at the bottom of this post).

If there are particularly quiet team members, you can ask them more pointed versions of this question to draw them out. This can be as simple as saying “Bill, I know you have experience in this area, what do you think is the best approach?”. Bring people into the conversation, and then listen intently to what they have to say.

3. Value their contributions

After you’ve listened to everyone’s opinions, thank them for contributing to the discussion. Even better, tell them how their opinions have made you think about the problem in a new way. Regularly acknowledge their contributions and express your appreciation, not only by listening intently but also by telling them what you learned while you were listening.

Now that you have listened to all of their opinions, it’s time to make a decision. If a consensus is reached during the discussion it’s often easy to just go with that decision, though make sure you challenge any consensus that is reached too quickly. If your decision goes against any of the recommendations that have been made, make sure to explain your reasoning.

Decisions on key issues often come down to assumptions about customer desires or even internal politics, and while it’s ideal to have data to back these decisions up, sometimes it’s not feasible. As long as you listen intently, appreciate their contributions, and then explain your reasoning, team members will still feel like they own the project, even if they might not agree with every decision that is made.

It’s not easy, so be patient!

Building a sense of ownership isn’t easy, and even if you get momentum going early-on it still takes a lot of work to cultivate that feeling throughout the project. Cultural and language differences just add to an already challenging task. Make sure to not only be patient with your team, but also with yourself if you make mistakes along the way.

Looking back on the projects I have led, I realize I have made countless mistakes. When I discover these mistakes, or when they are pointed out to me, I just apologize to the team, learn from the mistakes, and move on. By starting the project off right, listening along the way, and respecting everyone’s opinions, you will build a culture of ownership within the team. And when you reach that point you can sit back and enjoy working on a productive team that works together to overcome the challenges they encounter.

What do you think? Have some tips to add? Have some examples from teams you have either been on or led? Completely disagree with this approach? Please share your thoughts in the comments sections below. And on your way down there why don’t you sign up for email updates so you can get new posts delivered to your inbox!

  • Power Questions (affiliate link) by Andrew Sobel and Jerold Panas — I’m currently reading this book and highly recommend it. The authors offer many stories that highlight how “power questions” can lead to insights and deepen relationships. I only provide affiliate links to things I personally recommend, but, if you prefer, feel free to go directly to Amazon, B&N, etc., and search for “Power Questions” to find this book.
  • Innovation, and Imitation, in China
  • Brainstorming with the introverted and critical

  1. See my recent post on “Brainstorming with the introverted and critical” for more on how the Chinese culture affects brainstorming, and for some tactics to try to overcome these challenges.  ↩

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