Ownership vs. Fiefdoms

Ownership can save any project or company. Fiefdoms will kill both. But the difference is often fine and hard to distinguish.

Ownership is the ownership of responsibility for a given task or set of tasks.Just like a house will keep better with a homeowner to tend it, so will any project.

Bob might “own” the email-based customer support efforts of the company, for instance. He both “gets to” and “has to” decide how best to provide that support. This is his main focus. There is no ambiguity or doubt that he has to resolve the issues and gain success via customer email support.

But sometimes something else – what I would call a “fiefdom” – can masquerade in the guise of ownership.

Ownership at best comes to people clearly, logically, fairly, and with the ultimate goal of aiding the company’s efforts and using talent effectively. A “fiefdom”, on the other hand, is an area of ownership that is arbitrary, confusing, and tied more to feelings or ego or status or history or the status quo.

Bob would have a fiefdom if he only owned the email support for Gmail addresses, or if he owned email support as well as the company mailroom and product testing and social media marketing (because he’s always done those things). Bob might also have a fiefdom because someone higher up thought he would like being a product manager as well as the customer support owner.

Fiefdoms sometimes emerge from cronyism or nepotism. Sometimes they come from well-intentioned but not well-considered managers. But they often just emerge spontaneously and innocently, and this is why it is so important to watch for them. Ask yourself these questions to distinguish the fiefdoms that aren’t serving your company:

  • Does it make sense for me to have ownership over all of these areas? Do these areas speak to each other, and is there a logical connection between my activities? If not, it’s probably a fiefdom.
  • Am I still the right person for this area of ownership? Maybe once upon a time you had to take on a strange new area of ownership in an emergency. If the emergency is over and you’re still doing something far outside of your main focus, it’s probably a fiefdom.
  • Is my ownership only here because of my feelings? If you have ownership that doesn’t make sense (i.e. a fiefdom), it may be because you work in a culture of people who worry too much about hurting your feelings by stepping up to take on those responsibilities themselves.

If ownership is sort of like governing a country, you should make sure that your country has open borders, free trade, transparent government, and good relationships with its neighbors. Do that and your ownership won’t likely turn into a fiefdom – and neither will your organization.

Photo by LYCS LYCS on Unsplash

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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