What Project Caretakers Could Learn From Project Owners


Frank Sommers, president of Collaborative Data Solutions for Financial Services company, Autospaces, has waded into the Web Development vs. Enterprise IT debate, which came to the forefront following Tim Bray’s ‘Doing It Wrong’ blog entry.

Bray’s original post encouraged Enterprise IT to adopt some of the practices commonly seen in web-based development. To him, this includes cutting back on pre-release paperwork, streamlining development teams and gathering plenty of user feedback along the way. This, he claims, often results in web startups deploying their projects quicker and with less cost, than is commonly seen in the Enterprise. The examples of successful web-based startups Bray cites may be bordering on the obvious (Facebook, Google, Twitter, Ravelry, Basecamp, TripIt, GitHub) but his blog has won considerable support since it was published.

Sommers adds his own thoughts to the debate, claiming that the distinction should not be drawn between Enterprise IT and web-based developers, but between “owners” and “caretakers.”

Owners vs Caretakers

Owners and caretakers are present in enterprises and startups,” Sommers says, breaking down Tim Bray’s proposed barrier between Enterprise and web development. In Sommers’ ‘owners vs. caretakers’ distinction:

“Owners use their own money, or are at least very significantly and personally exposed to monies invested in a project. More generally, owners of a project or a codebase have very strong personal incentives to make their users happy, be those incentives financial or purely professional. As a result, for owners efficiency and reduced costs are musts, not simply desirable attributes.” Frank Sommers.

These factors actively encourage owners to adopt agile practices.

Caretakers, on the other hand, have “no personal financial or urgent financial stake in the process.” In Sommers’ worldview, owners want a project to succeed, caretakers are more likely to hedge their bets, deliver moderate results, and not run the risk of drawing negative attention to themselves. Sommers has a valid point: if a caretaker takes a risk and it fails, his bosses’ project suffers, and the caretaker is out of a job. Whereas if a project’s owner gambles with his project and the gamble doesn’t pay off, he can learn from his mistake and (hopefully) get the project back on track.

The threat of suddenly finding yourself unemployed, is Sommers’ enemy of innovation. He offers up a very powerful example of this, in the form of people he has known:

“who recommended and used one set of technologies in their day jobs, and used something completely different in a startup they worked on at night. In one context they were caretakers, in the other, owners.” Frank Sommers.

It ultimately leads to him posing the question:

Should we all be owners?”

To him, it’s catch-22.

“As soon as a business starts to have employees, or caretakers, an entirely different set of incentives and motivations enters the firm. While an owner-only company may be very efficient at every turn, you can hardly grow a business without employees.” Frank Sommers.

Sommers’ message is that exclusiveness restricts growth, but exclusiveness leads to a more agile way of working. Ultimately, he advises a Enterprise organisation to “accept somewhat reduced efficiency in return for the ability to grow and serve more customers or users.”

He then proposes a way to bring some of the positives of individual ownership to a large company, which is to encourage the employees to think and act like this is their own personal project; they are the owner. This can be extended into a the business model, where all the employees are motivated and care about the project in the same way the owner cares, without reaping any of the benefits of ownership.

Unfortunately, Sommers doesn’t go into any detail about how to actually make the employees act and think like owners.

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