What is single threaded ownership (STO)?

“Single-threaded teams” or “single-threaded ownership” as it is sometimes known, are terms that have been popularised, some say coined, by Amazon. It is a concept designed to side-step the problem of focus being diffused by unnecessary business distractions. Ultimately, the single-threaded owner becomes the leader of one deliverable, valuable, business outcome.

As an organisation grows, more and more of the decision necessitating work happens beyond an individual’s line of sight. Those decisions also tend to grow in complexity and acting upon them falls victim to office politics: needing to escalate, waiting for a meeting to occur, deferring to committees or seniority. Many will feel that communication will need to be managed about these decisions being made, too. People who are good at what they do get involved in things outside their domain or key area of focus, roles get blurred, intent and enthusiasm get lost.

Let’s imagine an example. A decision is made by the executive team at Company X, that improving retention is a key business outcome to focus on. Amina, a tech product specialist, is asked to become the Single-Threaded Owner (STO) of retention. After alignment with the execs on what the outcomes might look like for this, she is allowed to create the shape of the team she feels is necessary to achieve those outcomes. Usually, this is where iterative test and learn practices kick in. Initially creating a tiny team to understand the problems between them and the retention outcomes, then developing ‘bets’ that can be explored to prove the hypotheses of what they are trying to achieve. Deciding which tech, programming language and skills this division will need to have to deliver against the outcomes are also up to Amina and her team.

As an STO, Amina is completely in control of developing, running and optimising her team, to the exclusion of everything else. This is the crucial bit. Other parts of the company she works in aren’t her problem. What e-commerce, sales, trading etc., do are taken out of her line of sight, as are the constraints of which technology, platform or approved software to use. Now, Amina can put all her attention in to one place and focus on making it a success.

The subtle genius of this is really about culture. Think about it. Amina can use her skills, to develop the culture her team needs to achieve success. She has no real dependencies and impediments she must overcome to deliver value. She is only accountable to a very clear set of people. Ultimately, she is empowered to use her skills and experience to deliver value to the business and benefit to the customers. Gone are the politics, long winded decisions and corporate frustrations and replacing them are enthusiasm, focus and ownership.

The value of single-threaded ownership is huge. From a leadership perspective, these Single-threaded teams are separable so easy to re-direct, close down or scale up. From an STO perspective you are empowered to make quick, agile, decisions. From a team point of view impediments are removed and you can get on with solving clear, valuable problems at pace and with minimal distraction.

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