What are you protecting?
Recently, I had the privilege of having a large amount of responsibility for a project. In my role as an engineer, it meant that I had the responsibility to choose what was important enough to work on, what wasn't, and then design a system that met our desired outcomes within the constraints provided. Design, in a sense, is a never-ending cycle of discovering, weighting, and intentionally selecting trade-offs.
Our team worked tirelessly to develop a product that would be well received by the market. And to our relief, it was. Our dedication to making the best product we could for the customer had paid off.
And what happened next was fascinating.
As it is with any new product, our teams quickly identified a few opportunities for us to improve it. But, one or two proposals were met with frustration from the team, me in particular.
The recommendations were valid and would improve the product for a small portion of our customers. However, now they were fighting against the inertia of my prior decisions and justifications. Making this small change would require time and effort to fix, and more importantly, it would require admitting that I had been wrong.
Instead of advocating for the customer, I had started protecting my decisions.
Trying to justifying prior decisions after we received new information only delayed the implementation of the improvement. Thankfully, I recognized my response wasn't in the best interest of the company and customer, checked my ego, and recommended the change to be made.
I've come to recognize my behavior as something I call "Defensive Ownership". If you have ever been highly invested in a project, you've probably experienced it in some way. It happens to good people who have good intentions. People who are asked to make critical decisions day after day. People who own their role and care deeply about what they do.
When we take ownership, we naturally grow attached to our work. Constructive ownership is critical for engagement, progress, and quality work. However, because we are proud of the work we've accomplished, we can transition to defensive ownership - when we start protecting our decisions, time, or effort instead of focusing on our real objectives.