Extreme ownership is the bedrock of success for digital projects

Written by Tom Greenwood - January 28, 2019

I’ve been running Wholegrain Digital with my wife Vineeta for nearly 12 years now. One of the biggest challenges for both of us has been learning to cope with the huge responsibility that comes with running a company, especially as our team and projects have grown in size.

When there are issues to deal with, it’s easy to get stressed about things, to lose sleep, or simply to bury your head in the sand rather than facing things head on. In the past couple of years I have learned a lot about my own relationship with responsibility and at the end of last year I read the book Extreme Ownership: How Navy Seals Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin.

This is a book that was recommended to me by Pagely co-founder Joshua Strebel after his 2017 WordCamp Europe talk and which I had then avoided on the basis that frankly, it seemed way too macho and American for my taste.  When I did finally read it, my fears about gung-ho US war stories were confirmed – but I also learned a lot from the very important message at the core of this book.

In this post I’m going to introduce the concept of extreme ownership, talk about how it relates to web projects and how we can become comfortable with the weight of responsibility that it brings.

Best of all, unlike the book, I won’t be telling any war stories about killing “the bad guys”.

What is “extreme ownership”?

You might think that extreme ownership sounds like yet another buzzword, and you would be right!  It is, however, a buzzword with a very important message.

Extreme ownership is something more than what we would typical think of as “responsibility” or “accountability” in our jobs. It is a more holistic approach to leadership in which responsibility is not defined by job descriptions, but by the mission to be achieved.

In extreme ownership, a leader has total responsibility for success or failure, with no excuses, no blame, and with open admission of mistakes.

Contrast that with a conventional approach to leadership in which it’s easy for the leader to do everything right in theory, following best practices and sticking to an agreed plan, but yet fail to achieve the actual mission. In the standard approach, it’s often accepted for the leader to feel that they did everything right and to blame the failure on external factors such as other people, the economy, the plan, processes, the environment, tools, resources or any unforeseen circumstance.

In an extreme ownership context, external factors are not valid excuses: you can’t hold a retrospective and conclude that all of the issues were due to outside factors. Instead, you have to put your hand up and own it as the leader. The leader’s job is not to go through the motions of textbook leadership, but to ensure that the team succeeds in its mission despite any external factors. After all, no project ever operates in ideal conditions.

So long as a mission is physically possible, the leader must ensure that the team succeeds, and even if the mission is not physically possible, then it’s the leader’s responsibility to identify this and call it out so that the team can be refocused on a plan that can succeed (I’m pleased to report we’ve yet to take on a web project at Wholegrain which isn’t physically possible). With extreme ownership, you get real solutions and forward progress – while excuses maintain the status quo and deepen issues.

Extreme Ownership starts at the top (i.e. with me)

In the context of a business, it’s the Managing Director or CEO who is ultimately responsible for everything. At Wholegrain Digital that’s me, and it means that far from the modern culture of outsourcing responsibilities, I need to take ownership of ensuring the success of everything that we do as a company.

This means everything from our core mission to “create the best websites in the world, use business as a force for good and help accelerate the shift to an internet that’s good for people and planet”, to ensuring that our team are happy, that our clients are happy, that we have a glowing reputation, and that we’re financially healthy.

If anything at all is below the high standards that we set for ourselves as a company, I need to take ownership of that and find a way to put it right.

Is nobody else responsible for their work?

One of the things that can seem really confusing about extreme ownership at first, is the implication that if the leader takes total responsibility for everything, then nobody else need take any responsibility. The leader is responsible for everything, so the rest of the team can wash their hands of anything that doesn’t go smoothly. That doesn’t sound right.

If that was the case, it would surely be a recipe for disaster. But this is not the case.

How would the leader motivate anybody to do their jobs?  In conventional leadership, the solution would be to impose carrots and sticks to incentivise performance, but as Jocko Willink rightly explained in an interview for London Real, humans are not robots and they don’t do things just because you tell them to, because the rules say they have to or because you are dangling bait in front of them.

Rather, humans do things because they want to.  Extreme ownership does away with the illusion of people as obedient, rational followers and helps to create a culture in which everyone takes responsibility for their actions and contributes to the success of their team. They are intrinsically motivated because they respect the leaders, believe in the mission and care about their team.  They are intrinsically motivated because they want to learn from their mistakes and constantly get better at what they do.

The result is that it will gradually create a culture in which the team work as a unit to achieve their goals and want to help each other fix their problems.

It might not work for everyone, but the truth is that very few people actually want to shun responsibility and hide behind excuses. Most people want to be good at what they do and contribute to being part of a successful team.  If they don’t, then they simply shouldn’t be on the team.

How does this apply to a web project team?

In an agency environment it’s the company leader who needs to take ownership of everything that goes on in the agency and ensure that the agency delivers on its mission.

In the case of Wholegrain Digital, I need to ensure that we have a clear mission, that we have a skilled team, that we have the resources to get the job done, and that everyone in the team believes in what we’re doing. If anything isn’t working, then I need to ask myself what I can do to make it better.

As our work is largely project-based, project managers must also practise extreme ownership over their areas of responsibility, taking true leadership of their project team to ensure that every project is a success by both the agency’s and the clients’ standards, that there are no excuses, and that any struggles or shortcomings are discussed openly and honestly to aid the learning and improvement of the whole team.

We also want to make sure our clients are on board. We’ll make sure that the client shares the same vision of success and is committed to achieving it together as a team. Positive leadership and an open, honest approach throughout will, in most cases, build a strong team where all stakeholders take ownership for helping to ensure the success of the project.

Ultimately, it should permeate the entire team, with everyone in the organisation doing their honest best to help their team succeed.

Extreme ownership in practice: dealing with feature creep

I’d like to take a simple example to illustrate how extreme ownership works in practice within an agency.

A common issue in web projects is feature creep. You know the score: the client has requested extra features or changed requirements after the spec has been agreed, resulting in extra work and potential delays in launching the project. Let’s say hypothetically that this happened without the client being told that it would cost them extra or that it would delay the launch, putting stress on the team to reach a tougher deadline and creating an awkward dilemma over whether to spring the unexpected costs on the client after the event or to take the loss as an agency.

As Managing Director, I would need to ask myself where I’d gone wrong.

Had I not communicated clearly to the client from the outset and set boundaries during the sales process? Have I not given our team a clear framework of what is and isn’t included in the project? Did I fail to check that we had identified the client’s full requirements accurately at the outset? Have I not communicated effectively how feature creep affects the whole team in terms of added time and financial pressures? Had I known that this was happening and failed to intervene early enough?

Notice how the lens of extreme ownership has shifted the focus away from excuses about the client being pushy or team members not doing their jobs properly, and on to the real root causes.

Everyone should want to do great work, and this approach allows the team to work together in solving problems and constantly improving. It’s easier said than done.

The example above is a relatively simple one, but it highlights the wide variety of things that I as Managing Director might need to do better. That can be a hard thing to do, especially when battling with thoughts such as, “They should have known better”, “This is what I pay them for” or simply, “Why do things have to be so complicated?” Regardless of what I may feel in the heat of the moment, these types of thoughts are not constructive. The objective should not be to seek justice or miracles, but to seek real progress towards making things better one step at a time.

Admitting what we could or should have done better is not a sign of weakness, but in fact a sign of strength! It helps us to continually self-improve, and in taking true ownership of our mission, project or role, we earn the respect and support of our peers. In order to practise extreme ownership we need to keep reminding ourselves why we should not take what appears to be the easier path of excuses or blame, and remind ourselves of how our team will benefit when we ask ourselves the hard questions and own our actions.

I certainly have a long way to go in mastering this, but gradually, one day at a time, I’m trying to get better and better.

Extreme Ownership needs to be balanced with self-compassion

Anyone who works in the agency world knows that it can be a high pressure environment, with work coming in sometimes unpredictable waves from many directions. Many of us thrive on the energy and challenge of this environment, but there’s no denying that it can at times be stressful, so it’s important that we take good care of ourselves and those around us, and make sure that we take enough rest to retain our balance through those challenging patches.

It would seem that despite its positive intentions, extreme ownership could be an unnecessary source of additional stress. Some of us can be pretty hard on ourselves anyway, and it feels like extreme ownership could significantly amplify this burden. It’s therefore essential that we don’t go down the dark hole of self-deprecation.  To do so would be to completely miss the point. In extreme ownership we eliminate blame, and this elimination of blame must also extend to ourselves.

Taking ownership of something is not the same as blaming yourself for everything that goes wrong, just as it’s not the same as taking credit for everything that goes right. We must extend the compassion that we show to others, to ourselves, and look positively at any opportunities to learn and get better.

As I wrote about last year, curiosity is the key to solving problems, and a commitment to extreme ownership should be underpinned by deep curiosity about everything that we do and how it can be better. When we’re angry, it’s hard to forgive ourselves for our mistakes and shortcomings, but when we practise curiosity it’s easier to see what happened, forgive ourselves, and get excited about making things better.

Extreme ownership is a powerful tool for teams pursuing goals

The idea of extreme ownership may sound simple, but it’s surprisingly uncommon.  More than skill, talent or passion, it is ownership that provides the true bedrock of a team’s success, whether that be in a project, a sport or in business.

One of the reasons that extreme ownership is so rare is that it can be hard to face tough truths and acknowledge your own part when things don’t go to plan, but that’s never an excuse to bury your head in the sand.  Whatever your role in a team, when you start practising extreme ownership, you make your team stronger and influence others to take more ownership.

When coupled with self-compassion, it’s one of the most powerful tools available to any team in pursuit of their goals. Here are some of the key points again:

  • Extreme ownership is a holistic approach to leadership in which responsibility is not defined by job descriptions, but by the mission to be achieved.
  • A leader has total responsibility for success or failure, with no excuses, no blame, and with open admission of mistakes.
  • Extreme ownership understands that people are motivated because they respect the leaders, believe in the mission and care about their team.
  • Extreme ownership starts with the top, but must also be embraced by the whole team, and clients.
  • Admitting what we could or should have done better is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength: it helps us to continually self-improve.
  • Extreme ownership must be combined with self-compassion: don’t blame yourself for everything that goes wrong, but extend the compassion that we show to others, to ourselves.

Thank you again to Joshua for the book recommendation; whilst this article is based on the book, I will of course take extreme ownership over any errors :)