If solving a problem is like throwing a punch, then owning a problem is like going jujitsu on its ass.
Once in the past, I was lucky enough to see a competitor's "kill sheet"* for a product that I was involved with. It was full of lies -- blatant, demonstrably false lies. We dealt with it internally, but that didn't make me happy.
What would have made me happy? Posting the document on our website and tearing their arguments to shreds. At worst, we would address the complaints and FUD about our app. At best, the competitor would send us a takedown notice, thereby proving they wrote that crap.
I call this philosophy "owning your problems." Anytime someone complains about you or does something to piss you off, turn it to your advantage. In my case, we solved the problem but we never owned the problem.
Another example is the Palm Pre vs. Apple iTunes battle. Palm hacked their Pre cell phone so it would sync with iTunes. In response, Apple modified iTunes to stop syncing with the Pre. Next, Palm updated the Pre to sync with iTunes again. It went back and forth for a bit until Palm gave in to Apple.
If I was Apple, not only would I allow the Pre to sync with iTunes, I would let any phone sync with iTunes. Palm's attempt to leverage iTunes is a concession that iTunes is superior to any sync application Palm can make. Apple may feel good about their solution, but they missed the opportunity to own the problem.
At its core, this is an issue of control. Are you going to let your competitors control the conversation? Or can you make the conversation your own? There's money in it too; Get Satisfaction and Brands in Public built businesses where you have to pay them to own your problems.
The next time you're facing a problem caused by some external entity, ask yourself if you're solving the problem or owning the problem. Are you fixing it or turning it to your advantage? Chances are you're missing an opportunity to leap a mile instead of crawling an inch.
One last example. A Jets player twittered about his lack of play time. The coach responded by benching the player for a week. Problem solved.
If I was the coach, how would I own this problem? I would have twittered back:
@davidclowney work harder and you'll get more play time. Now put your phone down and get back to practice.
That's owning your problem, and with 34 characters to spare.
*A "kill sheet" is a list of points you can use to eliminate a competitor during a sales process.