Science of Productivity: Power of Ownership

Science of Productivity Ep 011: The Power of Ownership

November 25, 2020

You’re waiting to be seen by the doctor and it seems like it’s going to be quite a wait. You can choose between joining a line for a specific doctor or staying in a centralized, pooled line that will push you to whichever doctor is ready for you first. Which line do you join?

Systems engineering would suggest that one, pooled line would be faster, but behavioral psychology may suggest the opposite. Watch the video below or read the transcript to find out.

The Science of Productivity segment brings you scientific insights you can trust into how to accomplish your goals faster. It is part of the Anything But Idle productivity news podcast.

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For more on ownership, consider reading our articles: The Ownership Rollercoaster: How Managers Undermine Team Performance and Barriers to Critical Thinking: 3 Plateaus Where People Get Stuck, which describes the ownership plateau as hindering many people’s journey from phase one to phase two of the Critical Thinking Roadmap.

Prefer to read? Here’s the transcript:

Welcome to the Science of Productivity segment. In this segment, I bring you to a new piece of research on how to accomplish your goals faster. During this week’s segments, I want to share research that illuminates the incredible power of ownership for increasing productivity.

Let’s start with a study of emergency room data from 2007 to 2010. Here 3 researchers from Harvard Business School compared the efficiency and efficacy of two different methods of processing incoming patients: a pooled queue system in which all patients are entered into the same queue and doctors are assigned patients out of that queue and a dedicated queue system in which patients are assigned to different queues, with one queue for each doctor. In the dedicated queue system, doctors are fully responsible for their queue of patients; in the pooled system they share responsibility.

Which system led to better performance?

On the surface, this doesn’t make sense. Pooling patients should enable more efficient distribution of work to doctors. Wait times should be lower in the pooled system. So why did the dedicated queuing system outperform the pooled one?

The dedicated queuing system was associated with a 17% decrease in average LOS and a 9% decrease in average wait time relative to the control group.

According to the researchers, “improved performance stems from the physicians’ increased ownership over patients and resources.”

Ownership, which I like to define as taking responsibility for the outcome of your work, not just the output, leads to increased performance, even outnumbering gains that come from an intrinsically more efficient system. When you feel ownership for your work, you are more motivated to do better – and as a result, you do better.

Some of the same researchers who conducted this study have since tried to simulate the scenario using mathematical models. What they have found is that the idea of a dedicated queue speeding up wait times applies, for the most part, to fields that are knowledge-intensive and have high levels of customer ownership, such as medicine, personal banking or places like the Apple Genius Bar.

These findings align with the research of Wharton Professor Adam Grant, who found that when university fundraisers were able to meet a scholar recipient and ask them questions for as little as 5 minutes, their fundraising amounts increased by 400%.

If you’re looking to improve your performance or the performance of a team, focus on increasing ownership.


Hate Waiting in Line? New Research May Help Things Move Faster.” Mitchell, Heidi. Wall Street Journal (Oct 2020).