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Ignoring the Law of Ownership gives hope for Alzheimers victims. And all of us.

We live in a world with some big problems. That’s certain enough. I suppose it has always been true and will always be true. We advance. The blessing and curse of being human. We exchange one set of problems for the next. But we do not succumb. We do not sit still. We progress. In the face of ignorance, opposition, and cynicism, truth still happens.Truth faces huge obstacles. One of the many lessons I learned in the corporate world was one I’ll call the Law of Ownership. You see, executives believe in accountability. Love it! LOVE IT! And, if I’m an executive, the more I’m ‘accountable’ for, the more I’m rewarded, the bigger my fiefdom, the more control I can exert, the more status I attain, the bigger title, better chance I can get a better job once I’ve totally screwed things up where I am and have to jump ship… you get the idea.

And thus, the Law of Ownership:

“I can’t be accountable for what I don’t own.”

Or, as it plays out “I have to own it if I’m going to solve it.”

We’ll leave aside for future posts the idiotic and insane activities this Law incents and the fact that it is impossible for anyone in a large organization to ‘own’ a problem that reaches across teams or departments, but suffice it to say a corporate executive’s day is filled with drawing boxes of ownership, figuring out strategies and alliances to gather bigger pieces of the organization, and measuring and assigning accountability (this is where I note that accountability conforms to the Laws of Gravity and, like sewage, runs downhill).

The problem is while this approach often works to advance the career of the successful executive, it seldom actually solves any real problem—especially if that problem is large and complex. And, when it does have success, it’s a very expensive process.

So, here’s the good news: by using open source and design thinking principles we can overcome the myth of the Law of Ownership. Indeed, large complex problems can often only be solved when ownership and ego are set aside, when data is shared between all participants and when ideas are determined as valid based on the merit of the idea and not the false hope of ‘reliable’ measurements and personal agendas. And this is where I recommend my favorite business book of all time— The Responsibility Virus by Roger Martin.

That’s why a story in today’s NYTimes blows me away. In it we learn that just seven years ago “a group of scientists and executives from the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, the drug and medical-imaging industries, universities and nonprofit groups joined in a project that experts say had no precedent: a collaborative effort to find the biological markers that show the progression of Alzheimer’s disease in the human brain.”

I could focus this blog on the miracle of industry, government and academia working together so successfully in the day and time. But I want look at the broader implications of applying open sourcing and design thinking to a large-scale, complex problem:

“No one would own the data. No one could submit patent applications, though private companies would ultimately profit from any drugs or imaging tests developed as a result of the effort.”


The effort is already “bearing fruit” including a “wealth of recent scientific papers on the early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s using methods like PET scans and tests of spinal fluid” and with more than 100 studies under way to “test drugs that might slow or stop the disease.” What’s more similar efforts are using this collaborative model to in the fight against Parkinson’s disease.

Were the researchers cynical when the process began?

“We weren’t sure, frankly, how it would work out having data available to everyone,” he said. “But we felt that the good that could come out of it was overwhelming. And that’s what’s happened.”

— Neil S. Buckholtz, chief of the Dementias of Aging Branch at the National Institute on Aging in Indianapolis.

The results?

“It was unbelievable… It’s not science the way most of us have practiced it in our careers. But we all realized that we would never get biomarkers unless all of us parked our egos and intellectual-property noses outside the door and agreed that all of our data would be public immediately.”

Dr. John Q. Trojanowski, an Alzheimer’s researcher at the University of Pennsylvania.

“Parked our egos and intellectual-property noses outside the door”…

Read that again. Then imagine that attitude being adopted by the executive team of your organization.

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