Take it from a former leader, the open organization is hard work

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Team operating principles: the open source way


I'm probably one of the last people you want to comment on how to effectively lead and develop an organization. During my career, I twice held team lead positions. Both times I... well, I wasn't a disaster, but I do feel I could have been more effective.

On top of that, I'm not one for reading business books. All too often, they're filled with jargon or with platitudes and cheerleading that seems a bit divorced from the corporate reality I've been exposed to over the years. But when I was given the opportunity to read Jim Whitehurst's The Open Organization, I jumped at the chance. I was curious about how the open source way could be applied to running a successful company like Red Hat.

Here are the main lessons I took from the book:

First: To mold an open organization, you need to apply the power and flexibility that underlies open source to the organization. You need, as Whitehurst writes, to "transition into thinking about people as members of a community, moving from a transactional mindset to one of commitment." Part of that is to encourage employees to tell you when you're wrong. But Whitehurst isn't advocating a company filled with loose cannons with no respect for authority. You need people in the organization who are empowered not only to say that the emperor is naked, but also to explain why.

Second: What defines an organization is not just what it does, but how it does it. The organization must have a mission it's passionate about, then use that mission to hit employees at an emotional level. As Whitehurst points out, inspiration, enthusiasm, and excitement are emotions that definitely have a place in an organization. That said, it's hard to make people passionate if they're only there for a pay packet or if they don't believe in the organization's mission. One key is hiring passionate people.

Third: You'll have engaged employees if you have leaders who engage them. Last year, a group of community moderators met with the Opensource.com team at Red Hat Tower in Raleigh, NC. We saw the power of the kind of engagement I'm talking about up close. Out of the blue, Jim Whitehurst took the time to drop by one of our meetings and chat. You can read more about it in Remy Decausemaker's writeup. I can't think of anyone in the room, Red Hatter or otherwise, who wasn't inspired by Whitehurst's gesture.

One impression that I got from the book was that a truly open organization isn't top-down or bottom-up. Instead, an open organization is like a circle. At the center of that circle is all of the organization's passion and engagement. That radiates to all members of the organization, employees who are already passionate and engaged. It bolsters their passion and engagement.

In the end, though, building an open organization isn't easy. Whitehurst, in some ways, lucked into one. He also did a lot of hard graft not only to adapt to Red Hat's way of doing things but also to help expand that openness. Trying to transform a more traditional organization into one that's more open takes time. Mistakes will be made. Egos will be bruised. People, good and bad, will be lost.

In the end, though, the effort and the pain can be worth it. You'll have an organization that can quickly adapt, that has a better chance of retaining talented people, and which can engage those within the organization and without.

Follow the conversation on Twitter #theopenorg

That idiot Scott Nesbitt ...
I'm a long-time user of free/open source software, and write various things for both fun and profit. I don't take myself all that seriously and I do all of my own stunts.

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