My fault by default

More on extreme ownership

This isn’t me, but I appreciate this dude’s ownership.

In the 100x engineer, I touched on the topic of ownership. Here’s what I wrote:

100x’ers own what they do. They know the why, they know the how, and the what of what they do. In the book “Extreme Ownership” two former navy seals explain their concept of extreme ownership. The core of the concept is exactly what I mean when I say “own things.” It means: accepting that you are accountable for everything you do.

Most importantly that means: no finger pointing. This doesn’t mean that everything is under your control, but it does mean you are responsible for how you react when things inevitably do go wrong. It means you are responsible for anticipating what could happen and have contingency plans. It means you learn from mistakes to get value even from them. Own every aspect of what you do.

I wanted to lift out these paragraphs into this separate article, because they are something I very deeply believe in. I try to apply the principle of total ownership to everything I do, as a manager, as an engineer, as a parent, and as a husband.

In the abstract that makes many things simpler. Something doesn’t work out as planned? Who’s to blame? By default: me.

In reality this is pretty tough, because there are so many things in life you feel you don’t have control over. And let’s be honest, this is perfectly valid, we don’t have control over everything. However, we do have influence. While influence doesn’t guarantee an outcome, it does give you the ability to at least nudge things in the right direction.

I have found that it is pretty rare that in case of an unexpected event, there’s nothing you can do, or could have done.

I always ask myself two questions:

  1. Did I do everything in my power to prevent this from happening?
  2. Is there anything in my power I can do to prevent this from happening again?

Let’s take being late for a meeting as an example.

There’s always a “good reason” for this happening: traffic, tram broke down, dog ate my homework. But did you do everything in your power to be on time? Of course, realistically, the answer is always: no. You could have left an hour earlier, two hours earlier, a day earlier, just have stayed in the office overnight. It’s a choice to be on time, essentially, always. Of course there’s a trade-off between being on time, and you know, having a life. And there’s the second dimension to this whole thing: what are the trade-offs, and are they worth it? Staying overnight just to make a meeting? Probably excessive, taking an earlier tram? Perhaps worth it.

Then the second part: is there any lessons to be learned to prevent this in the future? I was late for a job interview once (somebody interviewing with me—don’t worry). It was scheduled at 9am, a time that I’m usually at the office for. Guess what, the tram broke down and I was 10 minutes late. Sorry! Rather than saying “tough cookies, what can I do?” I knew this was all on me. And I took measures to prevent it from happening again, so now I make sure I come 10–20 minutes earlier for such occasions. For the same reason you can probably find me 2–3 hours early at an airport.

This is a simple example, but the principle applies everywhere. In future articles I’ll cover some tougher cases. Next up: how to own somebody in your team quitting his job? Yikes.