Collaborative Leadership Blog

The Ownership Principle: The Key to Successful Change

Change is a constant. It may be the installation of an ERP system, or a disruptive technology that undermines the value of products or services; or a new competition from a cheaper provider overseas. While markets change, however, people do not like to. Instead they resist. Sometimes they have no choice.

The pain of not changing is greater than the pain of changing; it’s a “burning platform”. Imagine a business that is going to shut down unless there is a fundamental shift in what they do or how they do it—and they chose not to. Now imagine that within a year, the business is gone.

But let’s say there is a commitment to launch a change initiative to save the business. We know from research conducted by Harvard and McKinsey that the failure rate for change initiatives fail is as high as70% in large part due to a lack of ownership of the change by those affected by it. The cost of a failed change initiative can be staggering, impacting morale, quality, and profitability.

Leadership can greatly increase the chance of change success if they adopt a proactive, transparent ownership strategy that gives the workforce a direct stake in the outcome. In most change processes, the workforce is told what is going to happen, often accompanied by pink slips. So there is skepticism, resistance, and even sabotage of the initiative.

The Ownership Principle is simply this: people take care of what they own—they don’t wash rented cars. To build ownership, leadership needs to engage the workforce and give a voice in their own future. They are, after all,  the ones who will have to implement it.

At Marriott International, the back-room operations of full service hotels needed to be automated. There were 1800 people across the country who produced guest invoices overnight. 75% of them were going to lose their jobs as a result of the change. You would expect significant resistance. A collaborative change process engaged 100% of them in defining the “current state”, making recommendations, and then reviewing the new design, which was implemented. 97% of the workforce participated and 85% approved of the process. Workers said “Thanks for listening; no one ever listened before.” The company supported everyone who lost their job. These employees wanted to be heard. They had a stake in the company serving customers better. They owned the change process and helped build the solution.

Ownership is a powerful principle for implementing any major change. It’s a no-lose proposition. Leadership gets invaluable information about their business and virtually no resistance; the workforce gets to be heard, to contribute, and to guide the direction of the change. Having them fully vested in the change process through an ownership strategy is a way to ensure the success of the change

*Dr. Edward Marshall is an Adjunct Professor in Management at the Fuqua School of Business, Duke University; he is an ICF certified executive coach, Top 15 Trust Thought Leader, and author of Building Trust at the Speed of Change. You can contact him at:,, or  (919)265-9616