Opening up traditionally secretive organizations

No readers like this yet.
sticky notes making a palm tree on an island

Recently, I drove to the Netherlands for a day to hang out with about half the people who work at Greenpeace International. The meetup actually lasted an entire week, but I only attended Thursday, a day on which newly formed teams gathered to do some bonding and better understand each other's work. We talked about purpose and vision, as it was the first in-person meeting after a rather large re-organization that has been taking place over the last year or so.

Greenpeace is striving toward a cultural shift. The organization is aware that it needs new strategies—new ways of being—to remain relevant and effective in the 21st century. And, I think open source principles offer Greenpeace those new strategies.

I'm fascinated by what the open community takes for granted. Outside FOSS, free and open source software, the idea that work needs to have a solid foundation before being released is deeply seeded. But, in open source communities we say, "Release early, release often," a phrase I regularly substitute now for: "Throw it into the world as soon as you can formulate words around it." Heck, even if you aren't coherent, someone might still understand you. Go ahead and share!

I won't lie: I've been afraid to share too early. I didn't publish a word of my first book until I'd written the whole thing. But when it comes to solving real world problems, I think the sooner you let other people in, the sooner you can start prototyping and trying and failing and learning and ultimately succeeding. (Read this article to go deeper into the why behind releasing early and often.)

We've been conditioned to think that if you tell someone your idea, that person might steal it. We've all heard about big companies finding out about an idea and having more resources to build it better, faster. We've all heard the myth of the genius innovator who got shafted. We know it happened for real at least this one time. But this is the exception, not the rule.

At least it is here in my world—in education, in social justice, in the nonprofit world, where we are working for the common good, we should be excited when someone "steals" our ideas. We should ask people to rip, read, remix everything we do, because if they do it likely means that they're also trying to make the world a better place.

We've been taught that chaos will ensue if there are "too many cooks in the kitchen," but a strong moderator with an empathetic ear can help guide a group towards productive decision making. It's true that designing by committee can be tricky, but it is also probable that the committee as a collective has better ideas and solutions than the individual. In my experience, inviting people into a project strengthens bonds, thereby strengthening contributions, which leads to greater impact.

Greenpeace is a huge organization. It wants to become more open, but has decades and decades of secrecy built into its utter being. When they say, "We're not ready to be open," what they mean is, "We don't know if this is going to work." I think they also mean "We don't know how this works."

So I'm going to help them figure it out. Starting now(ish), I'll be helping Greenpeacers understand and use open practices top to bottom, left to right, in a mostly traditional workplace. I'm going to try to connect each and every Greenpeace community member (staff, former staff, volunteers, donors) and engage with them to unleash the power of their stories and their actions. An open organization encourages thought leadership and collaboration when it gives people the space they need to work on ideas without fear of failure. I'm going to help carve out that space and encourage Greenpeacers to use openness in support of their mission to conserve and protect the environment and to promote peace.

I'm excited about my new role at Greenpeace for a bunch of reasons. Bringing open principles into this traditionally secretive organization is going to be challenging. But I like challenges. There will be plenty of engagement, teaching, and learning with more than 4,000 adults who work to make sure our Earth can support all forms of life. I'm particularly stoked to share what I know about openness, learning, and technology while also learning about subversive campaign tactics, non-violent action, the oceans, corporate responsibility, climate change, deforestation, and more.

At Greenpeace I'll be living and teaching "openness," learning, learning, learning, fighting The Man, and sharing my journey.

(Originally published at Zythepsary. Reposted here with permission of the author.)

User profile image.
Laura Hilliger is a writer, educator and technologist. She’s a multimedia designer and developer, a technical liaison, a project manager, an open web advocate who is happiest in collaborative environments. She’s a co-founder of We Are Open Co-op, an Ambassador for, is working to help open up Greenpeace, and a Mozilla alum. Find her on Twitter and Mastodon as @epilepticrabbit

Comments are closed.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.