Just let your people do their jobs

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I don't read many management books, but I was very curious to read Jim Whitehurst's The Open Organization because there's a lot corporate America (and academia) can learn from free and open source projects. The fact that Red Hat, where Whitehurst serves as CEO, is a wildly successful business adds weight to his methodology (since presumably anyone can lose money with free software, but it's quite a trick to make money with it).

Whitehurst has written a book for conventional managers in conventional companies. If you're looking for an insightful take on using free and open source software to turn a profit, you'll have to wait until the appendix, where he thoroughly explores the power of Linux, which, as Whitehurst points out, is really the power of people.

Whitehurst's book could be summed up as "Let your people do their jobs," and while it shouldn't seem that innovative an idea, apparently it is in corporate America. Whitehurst obviously has a lot of respect for his team at Red Hat, and it shows in the book.

Ultimately, the challenge of this book is that Whitehurst might not realize how kind and sensitive he is, so he doesn't spend much time exploring those traits in terms of a management concept.

In one vignette, he talks about a spontaneous party the company crowd-sourced to employees upon hitting $1 billion in revenue. Employees around the world were given champagne flutes to be filled with "their beverage of choice." This is a fascinating contrast to the alcohol-soaked, peer-pressure-driven parties you often read about in the tech sector. Whitehurst didn't assume employees would or wouldn't want to drink, and instead created an environment that was comfortable for everyone. That kind of sensitivity might need to be made more explicit for certain kinds of managers.

He never explicitly discusses the intersection of workplace and gender and the challenges women face in the technology sector, but he draws on the stories of quite a few women from various parts of Red Hat. I don't think it's a coincidence, but rather a management choice to establish that everyone in his company has the same opportunity to succeed. I wish he had discussed the challenges of maintaining this kind of deliberate balance a bit more. He spends much of the book talking about the idea of a meritocracy (waiting until deep into the book to acknowledge that term is often misused and Michael Young, who coined the term in the late 1950s, meant it satirically), but Whitehurst never explicitly addresses how he ensures everyone feels they have an equal shot being heard.

But these are minor points. Whitehurst has written a well-reasoned book about how to lead. There's value in his advice for both open source projects and Fortune 500 companies. His mantra is to leave ego and structure at the door and just create an environment where people feel comfortable working hard to make good decisions.

Neil McGovern, the Debian project leader, has talked about the challenge of running an open source project when you can't tell volunteers what to do. But Whitehurst doesn't manage through authority. He manages through respect, and in that sense he and McGovern probably don't have jobs that are all that different. Whitehurst is basically running an open source project—it's just one that happens to be publicly traded.

I hope Whitehurst's book catches on in boardrooms and MBA programs. It's not a new way to think about management (although lots of open source project leaders could learn plenty from him), but it's probably new to most corporate cultures. Whitehurst manages through consensus and is seeing fantastic returns. As he points out, it's not a fast path, but the results more than make up for the lack of expediency. More companies need to see that quality is a better product than speed and agility.

Steven Ovadia writes LinuxRig.com, which features The Linux Setup, interviews with desktop Linux users. He is an academic librarian who writes about how users interact with information in an online context for assorted Library Science journals. He is the author of Learn Linux in a Month of Lunches. You can see all of his publications at steven.ovadia.org

2 Comments

re: Meritocracy

"but Whitehurst never explicitly addresses how he ensures everyone feels they have an equal shot being heard."

My interpretation is that respect is earned. Some people's voices/opinions carry more weight than others and you have to prove yourself at Red Hat--just you do in open source communities. Jim didn't quite address this as you mention above, but that's what I gather based on other parts of the book and other articles from Jim.

The way that we address meritocracy is create an environment where we foster and solicit ideas (this largely depends on experienced leaders knowing how to do this and teaching others through practice) and to provide a variety of channel to gather input. For example, at our quarterly company meetings, we take questions via phone, IRC, email, and in the room. As one of the moderators for that, I've even gotten a question via SMS. But I prefer the other avenues for Q&A ;)

Jim addresses this a bit in his recent interview on the Dave & Gunnar Show. I'll do my best to transcribe his response:

"That is a hard one, to be frank. Because once someone's built a reputation, it is more likely they will be listened to more than others. Now, if you still have a very transparent process, and you've built a culture that tries to celebrate the best ideas winning, there are a number of people who have strong reputations. And as long as the majority of those people continue to believe in the power of create ideas ([to] come from anywhere), then they're likely to self-moderate. So you may have somebody who says 'This is my idea,' but you can often have three or four other people who have really good reputations that say 'Hey, but here are five other ideas that are coming in.' So being very transparent, [having] a way for everyone to contribute their ideas, and continuing to celebrate ideas coming from anywhere I think are really, really important."

In reply to by Jason Hibbets

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