“That was a small lesson I learned on the journey. What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power. Nothing much of lasting value ever happens at the head table, held together by a familiar rhetoric. Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves.”
—Michael Ondaatje, The Cat's Table
Back in September I was lucky enough to participate in IBM's centennial THINK forum in New York City . The lineup included a staggering array of CEOs of the biggest, oldest, and most influential companies in the world, several heads of state (on loan from the General Assembly sessions at the UN across town), and a handful of boldface journalists and thought leaders. For all of the power on display in that room, the real topic of the moment was insurrection.
In the days surrounding the event (and the annual conglomeration of power that is UN week), Arab Spring continued to spread across the region and into the Fall. The Occupy Wall Street protests gathered steam in Zuccotti Park and across America. Meanwhile, the parliamentary victories of upstart, off-center (and off-the-wall) political organizations—including the loose confederation of Pirate Parties across Europe and Hungary's LMP or "Politics Can Be Different" party—shifted the sideshow to center stage.
The agendas may be inchoate and the uprisings chaotic, but the message is clear: the established way of leading, ruling, governing, and managing is not working anymore.
That's not exactly a newsflash, but what really struck me at the IBM centennial event was that the most tuned in leaders immediately got that it was not just not working for the 99%--it was not working for the 1% either (or wouldn't be much longer).
Just a little over a year into his presidency and already emerging as a bit of a populist maverick, President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III of the Philippines roused the global crowd of executives with his exhortation to "institutionalize people power. Embed it within institutions so people may easily make their voices heard." That's not optional, he went on, "People will always find a way to be heard."
Why listen? Not just to calm the unrest or even just because it's the right thing to do--but because that multitude of voices promises to open up the cloistered halls of power, flush out the stale air, and signal the future.
That's what Michael Ondaatje learned (and chronicles in his riveting new novel, The Cat's Table) during his 1954 ocean voyage from Colombo to England as an 11-year old unsupervised schoolboy, relegated to dine with an assortment of oddballs and outcasts and invisible to the elite denizens of first class. "Nothing much of lasting value ever happens at the head table," he writes. "Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves."
Escaping that rut and rethinking who gets a seat at the table just might be the most urgent leadership imperative of our day.
Jim Whitehurst got a short course in doing just that when he arrived as CEO of the rough and tumble Red Hat from his post as COO of the rather more buttoned-up Delta Airlines four years ago. From his first days at the helm of the billion-dollar open source software company, which lives, breathes, and bleeds the values of open source development (not least: the best ideas win, no matter where they come from), Whitehurst realized "if I'm not called an idiot at least once a day then something's wrong."
The power of redistributing power came home to Whitehurst (and his fellow Delta alum Jackie Yeaney, head of strategy and marketing at Red Hat) in the course of introducing a formal strategic planning process to the fast-growing company. They quickly learned that the conventional approach of a few executives (and maybe a handful of outside consultants) drafting a strategy behind closed doors to present to the wider organization would never fly in an company that valued openness and participation as fervently as Red Hat. Instead, Yeaney, Whitehurst, and a wide array of Red Hat colleagues spent three and a half years inventing and testing a powerfully original and radically open approach to setting direction.
Yeaney unpacks that journey in-depth in her excellent entry in the HBR/McKinsey Beyond Bureaucracy Challenge, but let me just share a few of the compelling lessons on what every leader has to gain by re-setting the table.
Invite dissent--and build belief
At Red Hat, says Yeaney, "there is a firm belief that the best way to get great ideas is to get a lot of ideas, from a diverse set of viewpoints." Even if those ideas actively contradict what you think. As President Aquino puts it, ""Dissent is what speaks truth to power." Calling for ideas from the ranks is not the same as genuinely inviting dissent into the conversation. "You truly have to have no consequences for doing that," says Whitehurst. All ideas are welcome, but no idea is sacred.
Creating an environment capable of metabolizing a diversity of viewpoints (and even brutal criticism) only works if people are held together by shared belief. Whitehurst and his colleagues focus as much time on strengthening the Red Hat community's values of openness, transparency, and collaboration as they do seeking out new ideas.
Don't just invite people to the table--involve them in the most important work
If you want to derive all of the insight and benefits of inviting broad participation in charting your organization's future, it's not enough to just ask for ideas. "Red Hat employees generated LOTS of ideas," says Yeaney. But the real power in the process was recruiting people from all over the company to form a series of "exploration teams" to define key areas of focus. The leaders of those teams then "tapped the people with the most knowledge and the most interesting ideas to take charge of actually developing strategy and plans in each area," says Yeaney.
Just as important, those plans were never handed back up the chain of command for "final answers." The effect? Yeaney cites three key benefits: first, the process generated "more creativity, accountability, and commitment." Second, "by not bubbling every decision up to the senior executive level, we avoided the typical 50,000-foot oversimplification" of issues. And third, "we improved the flexibility and adaptability of the strategy." With the responsibility for planning and execution in the hands of the same people--the people actually doing the work--responsiveness to new opportunities or shifts in the market went up dramatically.
There's a corollary here: make the work visible--even if it's messy. While not every individual at Red Hat was deeply involved in the process, everybody was kept in the loop. A dedicated cross-functional "engagement team" charged with inventing ever new ways to maintain transparency and expand the conversation, and exploration and strategy team leaders narrated their work and called for ideas and feedback on an internal wiki. The conversation continues to this day with discussions about the strategic framework, specific initiatives, and progress reports woven into company meetings, team events, and new hire orientation.
Even if you think you still have the power--act as if you don't
There's a lot of passion in circulation and you have so much to gain by figuring out a way to enlist it to your cause (and so much to lose if you don't). Whitehurst took that lesson to heart--and reaped the rewards.
"My first response was, 'strategy's secret! You can't collaboratively do strategy.' But it turns out that 95% of strategy really can be open--what categories are we going into, what are our sources of competitive advantage, what are the value points for our customers. The process works better, the results are better, the execution is better when people not only know what the strategy is, but they know why the strategy got put in place . . . and they've had a part in making it happen."