Nobody really owns product work

A few years ago I helped design the search feature for Basecamp 3. We’d invented a unique Mad Libs-style interface, and I was rather fond of how it turned out.

About six months later, other folks at the company had a new idea for the search UI, and they replaced my design with a completely different version. The new version was much faster to use, and worked better in every way, but I was still slightly bummed that my original design was erased out of existence.

Fast forward a couple years later.

We’ve been working on lots of new stuff lately, and many of my prototype concepts have already been obliterated or mutated several times over by other teams with better ideas.

But now, I’m finding that process to be exciting and exhilarating, instead of disheartening!

What changed?


Somewhere along the line I realized and accepted the truth: nobody really owns anything in a product made by a team.

Whatever ownership you have over an individual contribution is immediately forfeited the moment you commit the code. At that moment, the work becomes part of the ever-evolving organism that comprises a software system.

Each piece of work is a mere pebble tossed into a flowing river. Maybe your pebble will become bedrock—sticking around for a long time and altering the water’s trajectory. Or, maybe it’ll quickly dissolve into dust when new pebbles come along and crash into it. Both of those outcomes are completely natural and worthy of celebration.

In this way, collaborative software work is egalitarian. It doesn’t matter who did what, as long as the team is collectively accomplishing something greater than any one person could have done alone.

(This also goes for people with the title Product Owner. They don’t actually own the whole product or any of its component parts. They just own accountability for decisions about what to build and when.)


Once you realize this basic truth, you can separate yourself emotionally from the work you’ve done. But this is easy to say and hard to do, because it’s so counterintuitive! How can you be deeply, personally invested in making something, and then immediately stop caring about it when you’re finished?

The trick is to change how you evaluate forward progress: the long-term survival of your own contributions is irrelevant. The important thing is that the product is evolving into the best version your team can create together.

The more you appreciate the power of the group over the individual, the sooner you’ll become a more effective collaborator. You’ll be more willing to hear and absorb others’ viewpoints. You’ll be more eager to seek out everyone’s best ideas, instead of digging in and defending your own. And you’ll be able to celebrate other people’s achievements with authenticity instead of territorial resentment.

This also requires self-confidence, which is especially difficult to come by when you’re early in your career and trying to prove yourself. Imposter syndrome is a powerful beast.

Here are a few ways I’ve talked myself out of moments of weakness.

  • Since my work got changed later, does that mean I did a bad job?
    Usually not. If your project got shipped, and you completed it on time, and everyone was satisfied with the work, it met all the requirements it needed to meet at that moment. That’s great.

  • If my ideas didn’t get traction, should I just stop speaking up?
    No, keep trying! Often the right idea is built upon many not-quite-right-ideas. Suggesting the wrong thing can quickly lead to discovering the right thing.

  • How can I be sure I’m having an impact, when my work didn’t last for the long haul?
    Measure your work against what came before it, not what came after it. In my case, I designed Search v1, which later got replaced by Search v2. But what came before Search v1? LITERALLY NOTHING. We made a giant leap forward by building and shipping that foundation, and then we improved on that foundation later. That’s successful impact!

Our monkey brains are weird, so even with this rationale, you might never be able to completely eliminate that moment of gut-reactive sadness when something you created is overwritten. That’s OK. Just appreciate the journey you’ve been on, look ahead to future destinations, and it’ll subside quickly enough. ✨

4 thoughts on “Nobody really owns product work

  1. Great post.

    One thing I would add is that even the work that you did got replaced, it most likely influenced someone else’s decisions as well. If you haven’t created Search v1, it’s likely someone had to create it before creating v2. That way we extract lessons and collectively move forward.

    1. You are right. As (Derek) Sivers said on his TED talk: “Having the courage to follow someone who is doing something unique can leave a big impact”

      Even if v1 was the “wrong” approach (which I know it wasn’t), it prepared the road and enabled the team to create an improved and better version.

  2. “Once you realize this basic truth, you can separate yourself emotionally from the work you’ve done.” I would say that when you create a relationship between accountability and workload completed, natural components then come with that relationship. Emotion being one of those. Philosophically I don’t think you can ask the individual doing the work to not feel something for what they’ve done, nor would you want to. If there’s accountability, that defines parameters of that relationship were the work and the person are joined and people are emotional beings. I understand theme of your post, but accountability is a strong force. If work is done in a vacuum with no accountability and shoved out into the universe then it’s much easier to say it’s all about the group.

  3. Thank you for this thoughtful & insightful article, Jonas. I’m reading it at the perfect time as we’re working hard to build V1.beta.final-version3 (this time we mean it) of a product and we had a fairly long discussion just this morning about an issue and how it should be addressed. We all kind of fell in love with our own, personal-preference-based solutions and weren’t eager to compromise. Nobody had **the** right answer and we all forgot this important truth. Thank you for this timely reminder 😀👍🏻

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