Business success is a game of inches because it comes from constantly and consistently looking for fresh ideas that improve every part of your business. It comes from finding gaps and solving them better than anyone else. And it's about empowering your people to take ownership of everyday improvement and small-scale innovation.
You’ll notice I say ownership, not buy-in. There’s good reason for that: getting buy-in is much easier to do and doesn’t necessarily mean your people will take ownership of things. It may sound pedantic, but it’s an important distinction.
Henri Lipmanowitz described the difference between the two clearly and succinctly. He put it like this:
Ownership is when you own or share the ownership of an idea, a decision, or an action plan; it means that you have participated in its development, that you chose of your own accord to endorse it. It means that you understand it and believe in it. It means that you are both willing and ready to implement it.
Buy-in is the opposite: someone else or some group of people has done the development, the thinking, the cooking, and now they have to convince you to come along and implement their ideas/plans.
So it’s ownership we’re after. You’ve got to find ways for them to take ownership if you want ideas and solutions that are gold, if you want them to take actively seek and apply ideas that move your business forward.
My wife owns a horse riding school and one day she said to me 'the best way to get a horse to do what you want the horse to do is to get the horse to want to do what you want the horse to do'. Simple but profound.
So how do great businesses help their people take ownership of 'the game of inches'? Here are 5 rules.
1. Be clear about what you expect
Tell your people exactly what is expected of them. No BS, no shades of grey. There's a brilliant company in the Flinders Ranges called Kelly Engineering that has weekly meetings where team leaders are expected to have a notebook of ideas they have put in place about how to improve their part of the business. Clear and effective
2. Give them permission to put forward ideas and act on them
People won't give you their ideas, or more importantly act on them, if they feel they don't have permission. So give them permission and when you do be clear about it. Don't just give them permission to put forward ideas, give them permission to act on those ideas.
3. Let them make mistakes
As Mark Evans of Paronella Park once told me 'you don't learn anything if you don't fail'. Here's the deal, making mistakes is part of business growth so if you don't allow your people to screw up then they aren't doing anything. Remember business is a 'Game of Inches' and the good news is if you fail on an small-scale improvement it's not going to break you. Ask them 'what did you learn' and 'what can you do differently next time?'
4. Recognise their efforts
You will notice I didn't say recognise their achievements or outcomes. Yes ultimately that is important but what's more important is recognising their effort and their actions. Carol Dweck in her book 'Mindset' (well worth a read) talks about people having either fixed or growth mindsets. Fixed is where you focus on results - you won or you failed, where as growth mindset focuses on effort and process - you put in the effort, you learned, you took the right action. So recognize your people with a growth mindset.
5. Have a framework for accountability
It's a great thing to have your team take ownership but there still needs to be a framework in place to hold them accountable and that accountability needs to be about the process. How do you ensure they are having ideas, acting on them, and learning from their mistakes? One answer lies with Kelly Engineering's simple device of weekly team leader meetings. Another might be having team leaders provide a simple report of ideas their teams have had. Or another is to have possibly leaders report to you only if no ideas have been discussed in their groups. Powerful stuff because it moves the accountability to the teams themselves which in turn strengthens their ownership.
Remember, business success comes from finding gaps and targeting areas of improvement and then finding ingenious solutions better than anyone else can. And it's about that doing it consistently, inch by inch.