Openness is not an end in itself. Ellen Marie Dash firmly established this point back in 2014, writing:
While I like the ideals and goals of Open Companies, I find that the approach tends to position openness as an end in and of itself, instead of as a means to reach higher goals and values. While well intentioned, this approach to "openness" creates a shallow show with minimal tangible improvement, while also strongly reinforcing the problematic under-representation of marginalized groups.
Here, "Open Companies" refers primarily to the dozen or so startups in the now-defunct Open Company Initiative (OCI). Members included Buffer and FarmBot, as well as the mission-driven payments company I founded, Gratipay (née Gittip).
The OCI may be gone, but Ellen's challenge is still with us. Yes, our organizations "engage participative communities both inside and out," as Jim Whitehurst puts it in The Open Organization. But why do we do this? What are our "higher goals and values"?
At Gratipay, we can answer with a single word: Love.
Yes, we went there! Gratipay's mission is to cultivate an economy of gratitude, generosity, and love. For us, love is an end in itself, our ultimate answer to the question, "Why?" Therefore, we organized our company values into a model we call the Ladder of Love. Those familiar with Maslow's hierarchy of needs will note a resemblance; we modified the metaphor because ladders are something we want to climb.
Gratipay's Ladder of Love consists of five core values:
- Love—freely serving one another
- Openness—sharing control
- Transparency—sharing information
- Consent (or Agency)—not acting on another without their permission
- Safety—physical and emotional security
Love is the treehouse at the top. Safety is the ground.
Each value depends on the ones below. We can't make decisions together (openness) without being on the same page (transparency). But publishing information without consent isn't transparency, it's doxxing. And if there's a safety issue, then it's "time out" on everything else until we remove the threat and care for the victims.
However, these are not simplistic binaries. Yes, we value transparency, but our database password is a secret. Yes, we value openness, but we don't put everything to a vote. Gratipay is an "Open-ish Organization," to borrow Brook Manville's phrase, and organizing our values this way helps us remember what we really care about: building an organization and cultivating a society in which we can freely serve one another.
As we get the open organization movement rolling, I hope we keep Ellen's critique of the Open Company Initiative close to heart. Openness is not an end in itself. Let's be clear about why we are pursuing openness.
At Gratipay, our answer is the Ladder of Love.