Creating ownership in individuals, teams and communities

When I got invited to speak about the ways we create ownership in Digital Society School at an event byLRN21, I was frankly confused — what does our organisation have to do with ownership? We work with technology, innovation, sustainability and design thinking.

If anything, we often struggle with ownership because of our flat organisational structure and the many projects we juggle among our small team.

Well, precisely that — we work in an insanely complex environment — we have multiple projects, multiple teams, we tackle issues that involve transformation, digital technologies and some of the biggest challenges the planet is facing on a global scale. Without ownership, we would be falling apart already! So, I guess we have learned something about it and this is what I am going to share.

Ownership is very simple — it is about having the authority to exclusively use the benefits from something while having the responsibility to take care of it.

If you ever experience that students, team members, or colleagues are not very involved in a project and lack motivation, it probably means that they assume this is YOUR project and don’t assume neither the benefits, nor the responsibility for it. You have involved them in the project too late.

For example, you have an idea about a cool new event that will expand the network of your organisation. You pitch it to the team and everyone says “Great idea, Joe, make it happen!”.

The event is big and it requires planning, coordination, involvement of different people and skills. You go around and start pushing people to help you out: “Mary, you need to be involved in this event, it is in your role to do event production.”

Unfortunately, Mary thinks this event is not in her priorities and responds (kindly): “Joe, YOUR idea is great but I am too busy with MY own work so I can’t help you out.”

Did you see that? YOUR idea is not MINE so I will not work on it. Mary does not assume any of the benefits from that idea, so she doesn’t feel any ownership for it.

However, if Joe asked “Mary, do you consider expanding our network top priority for you as part of this organisation?” and Mary said yes (her priority is addressed, she benefit from this), then he could ask further “How do YOU think WE should work on that?”

If Mary spends some time with Joe on coming up with ideas, she will develop also that sense of responsibility as well. Suddenly she shares the ownership of the idea and is much more likely to make it happen.

If you teach (or have been a student recently) you are probably familiar with this mindset: “I am a student in YOUR class and YOUR subject so why should I care about it? YOU want me to learn this so you have to make the effort and teach me this.” A typical example of a student not having any ownership of their own learning.

This is something we are transforming at Digital Society School and we have some of the most inspired and motivated learners out there (in my opinion).

We work and live in a world of complexity — challenges such as climate change, pollution, social injustice and digital transformation of society involve multiple stakeholders, diverse perspectives and interconnection that are extremely hard to manage. There is no single right solution for these issues and tackling them requires collective action from multiple perspectives.

We need to create collective ownership of personal, organisational and social transformation.

At Digital Society School we do that step by step by creating personal and collective ownership of the content of our work, the purpose of our work, the learning and the process. Here’s how:

Ownership of content

We bring together diverse perspectives — we form teams by multi-disciplinary background and cultures. This diversity ensures the richness that is required to tackle complexity, transform and innovate.

Diversity also creates difficulties such as confusion and misunderstanding. Sustainability for a business person means financial stability and for an environmentalist it means protecting the planet.

Even things that seem obvious and clear like “Let’s meet at 15:00” to a Bulgarian (like me) means “I will probably be there 15:15” and to a Danish person it means “If you are not there by 14:55 I am leaving because I don’t expect you to show up at all”. Trust me, I’ve learned this the hard way!

We ask participants in our programmes to create shared definitions f key concepts and frameworks:

  • What does climate change mean to you?
  • What does design mean to you?
  • What’s ownership for you?

We also ask them to teach each other and share with each other their skills and culture. We co-create the programme with them, rather than for them.

In fact, they asked me “When can we start teaching those workshops?” — the answer was “They are YOUR workshops, so you decide and just go! Let me know if you need help setting it up!”

Ownership of purpose

One of the most important drivers of ownership is identifying an individual and collective purpose that gives people a sufficiently pressing reason to be present and do their best.

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We encourage learners to go after their passion and curiosity. One of the first questions we ask is “What do YOU care about? What makes you passionate and how does it relate to you being here?”

We connect the global issues our projects are tackling with the individual passion and curiosity of our learners. We frame it this way: “This is the bigger purpose we are all working towards. Your challenge is to work towards this purpose through exploring your questions about it and using your passions and strengths.”

For example, one of our projects is about Climate Change (big goal, HUGE) and the challenge for our learners is formulated like this:

“How do we support climate change solutions with data-driven storytelling?”

The possible answers are many and any answer our learners could find will contribute to the bigger goal and will be their own as well.

And every time they think they’ve got it, we ask them “How can we make this better/ bigger/ simpler/ smarter?”

Because working on a complex challenge is a learning journey — with an increase of skills, we scale up the challenge, expectations and impact.

Challenge requires learning and learning requires a challenge. If you feel frustration, that means you can learn something here!

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Progress and learning are frustrating and difficult. Tackling complex challenges is not comfortable. Remembering why we do it brings back the ownership of the journey. Staying focused on the purpose is what keeps us learning and growing until we find a solution. Frustration and clashes are not pleasant but they show us that we managed to get out of our comfort zone. The heart of innovation and learning is outside our comfort zone.

Ownership of learning

So how do we create ownership of our learners’ growth and development? Engaging them in creating their own learning programme creates a strong sense of ownership of their own learning and experience. We support them in planning out their own learning journey. We ask them things like

  • What are your learning intentions?
  • What questions you want to explore in this programme?
  • What do you want to create in the world and explore with other learners here?
  • What skills do you need to develop in order to create that?
  • What is your plan on developing them within and outside the programme
  • What skills do you need to practice as you work on your projects?
  • How might you pick up tasks that provoke you to develop the skills you want?

Once they have their plan, we remind them that the programme we offer at DSS is only facilitating their goals.

They have the responsibility to make the most of their time and use every mistake and every challenge as an opportunity to learn. There is no failure or bad workshops, there is only bad attitude.

If you don’t like it, you can do something to change it. Own it and take actions!

That is supported by another principle that we follow :

The Law of Two Feet: If you find yourself in a place where you’re not contributing or learning anything new, use your two feet and move somewhere where you will.

Ownership of process and method

DSS education is like a buffet lunch — we offer set tools and opportunities, it’s up to the learners to make the most of them (if relevant). We offer them the design method toolkit to play with, the SCREAM approach to help them work together, and give them tools and practices to let them discover what works for them, their team, their process and their challenge.


Co-ownership and community building

DSS is a learning community and communities work well when there are collective ownership and collective accountability. Unfortunately collective accountability often means none at all.

One approach to creating that is, as I have mentioned, collective purpose. Another one is collective agreements on our way of work. We support the learners with making explicit agreements on how they want to co-exist and learn as a community. They set their desired outcomes and we are there to support them but we will not do it for them.

The reason for that is that ownership is related to agency, competency and trust. Giving ownership to learners means trusting that they can handle the responsibility that this ownership entails — it evokes pride and it can be a little bit scary.

This is why we offer them learning opportunities and support but we always assume they can do it and if they can’t, they can figure it out!

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