What the community has taught me about open organizations

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When I was pitching The Open Organization, publishers always asked me the same question: "Is this a book about management or leadership?"

And my answer was always the same: "The Open Organization is a book about management." After all, it's about the ways Red Hat, the open organization I lead, uses a networked organizational model (one we adopt from the open source world) to make decisions and coordinate, and those are management issues.

But as the book took shape, its eventual publisher, Harvard Business Review Press, insisted otherwise. "So much of this book is about leadership," people at the press told me. "It talks about are things you're asking leaders to recognize and do to motivate associates."

So I took a step back and really thought about what they were suggesting. And that prompted me to reflect on the nature of the question at the heart of the matter: "Is this book about management or about leadership?"

It's the "or" that struck me—the assumption that management and leadership are in fact two isolated, separate domains. I struggled to understand how their division had become so deeply entrenched, because it seemed to me that open organizations in particular don't embrace this distinction.

The key to the conundrum, I realized, is emotion. As I argue in The Open Organization, classic management theories try to pretend that emotions don't exist in organizational contexts. It's one of the assumptions they make in order to justify their models of the way the world works. In order to better understand management as the "science" of distributing decision rights, developing control functions, budgeting, capital planning, and other detached, disinterested activities like these, management theories "abstract away" humanity. They presume people are entirely rational and that hierarchies always function the way they're supposed to. (Incidentally, they do this because they owe much of their thinking to work in classical economics, which performs the same simplifying maneuver: assume people are rational, that they have perfect information, and that markets are in equilibrium—and only then can you "make the math work"!)

We're beginning to learn that these assumptions are seriously misguided. New research in behavioral economics is constantly teaching us how patently false they are. They may have been necessary at a certain point in time—for example, when management dealt mostly with uneducated workers performing relatively rote tasks, when work environments were essentially static, and when information was scarce rather than abundant—but they no longer apply. Our age requires a new management paradigm, one that taps the passion and intelligence of a workforce motivated by something other than a paycheck.

I believe the open organization is that model. But a management model based on something other than the assumption that all people are like Star Trek's Spock is practically unheard of today. Talking about ways to tap and mobilize people's emotions, how to get people to act in ways that transcend themselves, and how to understand what motivates them to arrive at the decisions they do—all that is the province of "leadership" studies, not "management." We've always known these practices exist. We've just cleaved them from management "science" and relegated them to their own territory: the "hard" science of management over here, and the "soft" skills of leadership over there. And there they've stayed for decades.

But when you think about management and leadership, you immediately realize that they're both essentially attempting to understand the same thing: How can we get people to work together, in a coordinated fashion? They shouldn't be separate. Truthfully, they aren't separate. They only seem separate because we've thought about them this way for years.

So is the book about management or leadership? I'd argue it's about both management and leadership: two arts of coordinating people's efforts, finally reunited.

Six months of conversations with managers, leaders, and readers in the Open Organization community have taught me this important lesson. And those conversations almost inevitably raise the following question: What's next? How can we begin putting open organizational practices in place? Where will open thinking eventually lead us?

The truth is that I don't know. But I do know this: We can look to open source communities to show us the way.

Open source communities demonstrate participatory organizational principles in their purest form. Red Hat has been incredibly lucky to work with so many of these communities—which are essentially fertile and fascinating petri dishes of experimentation with cutting-edge management and leadership ideas. We learn from them every day.

And we'll continue looking to them for guidance on our journey, because they represent our greatest hope for making workplaces more inclusive, more meritocratic, and more humane. These communities are constantly innovating by questioning tradition, and that's precisely what any organization must do if it wants to remain viable today. I've begun questioning the "traditional" distinction between management and leadership—but this entire volume is evidence that people everywhere are overturning deeply-held beliefs in search of fresh insights and new directions.

Six months of community conversation have proven that.

(This article appears as the afterword to The Open Organization Field Guide. Download your free copy of the guide today.)

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Jim Whitehurst is President and Chief Executive Officer of Red Hat, the world’s leading provider of open source enterprise IT products and services. With a background in business development, finance, and global operations, Whitehurst has proven expertise in helping companies flourish—even in the most challenging economic and business environments.

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