The terms “business owner mentality” and “employee mentality”, or, as I prefer, “project owner mentality” and “project worker mentality” are commonly used to describe the difference between effective workers and effective managers. These two mentalities come up in almost any human endeavor of appreciable complexity, and I think it is worth recognizing the difference and looking explicitly at the mentality one approaches any tasks, projects or ideas that one is working on.
The difference between an owner mentality and a worker mentality is that someone with a worker mentality looks at work as a set of tasks to be done in a given time. The focus, like in prison, is on spending the required time and doing the required and expected things, then clocking in and going home. A project worker mentality implies the expectation that one has a fixed set of tasks, and one’s responsibility ends at doing those tasks. That is, the responsibility is about spending time doing things, not the end-result of the tasks. In contrast, a project owner takes responsibility of the results rather than the specific tasks.
Doing something that has never been done before
I don’t think one has to be a business owner to practice the mentality of ownership. In a simple and predictable project, there might not be such a large difference between these two. However, on a complex project (containing some uncertain and open-ended goals) there is a major difference.
First, they project workers expect to be able to apply a previous formula and succeed. There is a place and time for routines and best-practice-guidebooks, and that is in getting something established run smoother. But blindly applying advice from other people who did something different at a different time with different people is not a route to success. You may think this is obvious. It isn’t. A lot of people prefer to abrogate their decision making responsibility to whatever they are told by someone and pretend that they are not at fault for following faulty advice. In fact, the Internet is full of those people.
Second, they will underestimate the need of informing others about plans. Someone with a project worker mentality will expect to 1) do everything on their own and 2) be able to get things done just by doing what they think are the assigned tasks. However, in many cases you 1) should be thinking about enlisting others and 2) be thinking about new ways to get the result you need. Flying by the seat of you pants is fine if you only care about what you want to do. But the more people are involved, the more there is a need for explicitly telling others about what ought to be done. You can’t do that well if you focus on the tasks rather than thinking about the outcomes of the whole project.
Third, they will underestimate the importance of selling ideas to others. “I think it is good idea, so probably everyone else will agree”. Wrong. You aren’t the only one doing the work, and the outcomes are hardly clear if this is a complex project. You have to invest time in convincing others about it. Churchill said it well: “If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time – a tremendous whack. ”
Fourth, they will expect to control all of the project. It’s my baby! Any successful idea ought to outlive it’s originator. You don’t own your work, you own the outcomes of your work. That means that you must not only be willing to let other people take your place in the project, but plan and work towards it. People will distort your idea, and that is fine. It means they have accepted it and adapted it. As Richard Farson put it: “Effective managers are not in control [...] Many of us have the idea that as managers we can use our skills to shape our employees as if we were shaping clay, molding them into what we want them to become. But that isn’t the way it really works. It’s more as if our employees are piles of clay into which we fall – leaving an impression, all right, and that impression is distinctly us, but it may not be the impression we intended to leave.”
Please do not take this as me saying that one is superior to the other. The point is, both mentalities have a place, but in the wrong place and role they can be ineffective, even disastrous.