I interviewed Niel Nickolaisen who discussed Trust-Ownership Model as a Framework for Creating Great Cultures.







It’s nice to speak with you today, Niel, and I’m looking forward to hearing your views on the topic of the trust-ownership model, which is a framework for creating great cultures. Can you first provide a brief background of yourself?


Sure. After I graduated from college, I started out life as an engineering manager. I ended up getting involved with process improvement, became something of a lean-manufacturing person, or expert, and I was working for a consumer goods company in operations, supply chain optimization, and inventory management and such. I pretty much complained every day about how bad their IT systems were.


One day, just to get me to stop complaining, the CEO made me the CIO. That was about 18 years ago, and I’ve spent the past 18 years in an IT leadership role, helping organizations optimize their IT, whether it’s business systems or software products they’re developing. Along the way, I’ve had the opportunity to experiment with some models, I’ve learned a lot in my leadership roles, and a lot of that went into this recognition of the impact the culture has on teams and organizations and got me thinking about, then, some of the characteristics of cultures that make a place a great place to be.


What is the trust-ownership model?


Kind of somewhat cynically, I’ll tell you this story. A great consultant once told me that any valid idea must be represented in a four-box model, so a trust-ownership model is my four-box model. On the vertical axis, we have the levels of trust. At the top is a high-trust culture; at the bottom is a high-control culture, because control, to a certain extent—the way I think about it—is the opposite of trust. If I don’t trust somebody or a team, I’m going to control their activities; I’m going to make sure they can’t do too much without my approval or my direction or my telling them what or how to do something.


On the horizontal axis on the left side is low ownership, meaning my teams don’t feel ownership for the results we’re trying to generate. At the right end of the spectrum is high ownership. The teams know what matters, they know why it matters, and they feel strong ownership for generating those results. If I look at that in those two dimensions, I get four types of cultures: high control, low ownership. That is what has been the prevalent leadership or management model of command and control, where the leader knows what to do, the leader knows how to do it, the leader knows what decisions to make, what matters, all those things; everything routes through the leader. The extreme case of command and control is micromanagement, down in the lower left corner of that trust-ownership model.


At the other end, high trust, high ownership is a culture that’s innovative, people are motivated, and they love being there. The other two corners, if there’s high trust but low ownership, you get an environment where not much gets done. People are just doing whatever they want, they’re not aligned. There’s not a real performance culture because there’s high trust, but nobody feels ownership for delivering anything. At the other end, along the other diagonal, you’ve got teams and individuals who feel high ownership for results, but they’re being tightly controlled by the leaders or managers, and in that case, you end up with conflict.


Now, this chaos quadrant and the conflict quadrant, I don’t think either is sustainable. Most of the time we’re dealing with either command and control or, in the extreme, micromanagement of some type, or this highly innovative, highly motivational culture. When I talked about the trust-ownership model with other people, I asked them to describe the environment and situation with the best leadership they’ve ever experienced. Words like trust come out. “I was allowed to do things. I was allowed to pursue. I could take chances.” Also, they knew what the results had to be. When I asked people about one of the worst environments thieve ever worked in, typically, it’s those other characteristics of either command and control or micromanagement.


The other thing I would say is that the command-and-control environment has been the operating model for a long time. To a certain extent, it works. It’s never been optimal but it can work. One of the points I make with people when I talk about the trust-ownership model is that even if command and control has worked—not been optimal but been operational—historically, it is not today because of the pace things are moving. The dynamic nature of the marketplace, the dynamic nature of competition, how everything’s changing so rapidly, command and control no longer works because there’s not a manager who knows enough to keep up with all the changes that are taking place. There’s not a command-and-control manager who knows how to deal with the uncertainty and ambiguity that’s in front of us. The only way we can possibly survive in today’s environment is to shift to a culture of trust and ownership.


Can you talk about how this model can be used?


Sure. I think the most pragmatic way it can be used is for anybody in any type of role, whether they’re leading themselves or others, is to look at their actions, look at the processes, look at the activities, and ask: What we’re doing, does it increase trust? Does it increase ownership? If not, what can I do to increase trust, and what can I do to increase ownership? Because, step by step, piecewise, I can make changes to how I manage and lead. Shift me wherever I am farther up into that upper-right quadrant of high trust and high ownership.


This shows up in lots of ways. One of the examples I use is: How do you get status reports on the projects your teams are doing? Do you get detailed status? Do you really deep-dive to really understand what’s going on, or are your status reviews more focused on the results being generated? Is it at a higher level or lower level?


The approach I use now—and I’ve evolved to this as I have become less of a command and control and much less of a micromanager—I do status-report meetings on every major project with all of my teams. Those status reports last anywhere from 30 to 90 seconds a month by project. I ask three questions: What have you gotten done in the past month? What will you get done in the next month? Do you have any problems you need me to resolve? If I’m diving deeper than that, I’m starting to take away their ownership and show that I don’t trust them to deliver.


If a team is struggling, I’ll do a deeper dive, but I can’t assume that every team needs my intervention on everything. Only those who need it. Then my goal is to quickly return them to their own ownership rather than me becoming a problem solver for them.


Do you have any success stories you can share?


Several years ago, I was hired to be the CIO of a rapidly growing and highly successful online university. The previous CIO had been quite a bit of a micromanager. “Here’s what we’re going to do, here’s how to do it, and if you don’t do it my way, you’re doing it wrong.” This team wasn’t generating the results they needed, which is one of the reasons they hired me. In fact, the IT team had such low credibility that the university had decided to replace all of its student-facing technology. No one from IT was allowed to participate on these projects; they had seven distinct projects, and no one from IT could play.


I inherited this team that was really used to micromanagement and command and control. I knew we had a lot of culture problems, we had a lot of delivery problems, we had a whole host of problems. In fact, when they hired me, the university president kind of implied, he said, “It’s okay with me if you have to fire and replace everybody who reports to you.” Wow, that’s kind of an indication that things aren’t very good.


I approached it from a basis of trust and ownership. First thing I did was tell everybody, “I’m going to trust you first. You can prove to me that I’m wrong to trust you, but I’m going to assume you’re a superstar at work, and I’m going to treat you like you’re a superstar. If you’re not, come to me, and I’ll help you become a superstar. As a team, we’re going to agree as to what our priorities are—the things that matter most, why they matter—and then you’re going to own the implementation of whatever those things are.”


It took a while. I had to wean people off being told exactly what to do every minute of the day, every day of the week. Within a few weeks, things got better and our performance improved. Within a few months, things got better. Nine months after I’d started, remembering that I had inherited a team that had such low credibility that nobody wanted to use them for anything, the university asked me to slow IT down because we were producing technology and technological services too quickly for the university to absorb the change. When I inherited this team, there was almost as much shadow IT—meaning, IT people being hired in departments outside of the central IT group as there was central IT.


Over the months, we created such a great culture based on this concept of trust and ownership that people were begging to join IT. The shadow IT, which is a big concern in IT circles, evaporated because the best place to work in the university was in IT. It wasn’t the best place to work because we had free snacks or catered lunches, because we didn’t; it was a great place to work because we knew what mattered, we knew what we were working on was important, and people did their work.


Sometimes they’d get frustrated. The university president would say, “Who’s working on this project?” I’d say, “I don’t know.” “What do you mean you don’t know?” “I don’t know.” “Well, how do you know who’s working on it?” I’d say, “Whoever’s working on it is somebody who wants to work on it.” I told the team things like, “I don’t care when you work, I don’t care where you work. All that matters is all this work we have has to get done.”


People rose to the occasion. The same people the university president told me it was okay with him that they didn’t work at the university anymore; within months, they were the most sought-after people in the university. I’m a personal believer that this works because I tried it in something of an experiment at this university, and it’s one of the most dramatic culture changes I’ve experienced in my life.


Thanks for sharing these great insights and your experience on the topic of the trust-ownership model as a framework for creating great cultures.


You’re welcome.





About Niel Nickolaisen



Niel Nickolaisen

Chief Technology Officer at OC Tanner


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