How a leader can move forward without consensus

Pushing a project ahead without absolute agreement is still possible—maybe even preferable.
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A maze

Open organizations depend on collaboration and inclusion, so when it comes to making decisions, it's natural to wonder how much time and energy we ought to spend in the pursuit of alignment and consensus-building.

Openness and transparency are infused into everything we do at Red Hat, from the way we create technology to our methods of communication. We are a mission-based, purpose-driven organization, and that means company-wide alignment will always be crucial for some of our decisions.

But (as I've observed over the years) sometimes complete alignment isn't necessary—or even plausible—until a project or idea reaches a certain level of maturity.

Consensus-building is a valuable skill, and fewer forces are more powerful than a community rallied around a shared purpose. At the same time, if a desire for alignment and agreement prevents your organization from acting quickly when it matters most, you may struggle to innovate and remain relevant.

So, what's the right balance for an open organization to strike?

Align on what matters most

Many organizations miss opportunities to align everyone on guiding principles. But in open organizations, a leadership team can't simply write and hand down a set of values. When Red Hat set out to create our mission statement in 2008, for example, we wanted to be sure that each and every Red Hatter truly understood what we're here to do and why we included each word in the final statement. We wanted them to see themselves in our mission.

So we approached it in an open source way, inviting all Red Hatters (at the time, more than 2,000) to contribute and offer feedback. It's worth noting that our approach to alignment involves more effort, transparent communication, and oftentimes spirited dialogue. But we're accustomed to some tension and disagreement—this kind of passion is what makes our company unique and contributes to our strategic competitive advantage.

More than eight years later, we've grown more than 10,000 associates, and our mission statement continues to resonate. Now we're facing challenge of bringing more clarity to the behaviors that support our mission and values, so that we can scale and sustain our culture as we grow. Here again, we're seeking alignment through an open and inclusive approach.

Sometimes complete alignment isn't necessary—or even plausible—until a project or idea reaches a certain level of maturity.

For something as foundational as a mission statement or other expression of your values, I believe the tremendous amount of time and investment it takes to engage your organization and reach full alignment is always worth the effort.

To align, or not to align?

On the other hand, in the fast-moving tech industry, we've also found great value in putting our time and energy into rapid prototyping, rather than pursuing alignment. Having the flexibility to spin up ideas quickly and with only a few key groups enables us to see if they resonate before applying them mainstream.

Let me share one example. We took this approach when we noticed a gap in how we enable our sales teams. As a company, we historically worked in silos to provide training and support our customer-facing associates. But as our products increase in complexity, so do the skills people need to sell those products.

These days, transforming our selling motion requires the expertise and perspective of more than just one function. Our industry won't wait for us to attempt to align the entire company on a single approach or reorganize everyone internally to support it. So instead, we focused on aligning a few key groups and leaders, working together to form a small (but mighty) sales enablement team. Rather than seeking to align everyone at once, the team made the strategic decision to work openly, inviting the entire company to see and contribute to their efforts.

This starting point helped us to channel our efforts more efficiently through the groups that work directly with our sales professionals and partners. We didn't strive for perfection or total clarity—we strived for focus. Through a discovery process, we identified gaps in our training, messaging, and workstreams. By working openly and collaboratively with anyone who was interested in contributing, we saw a groundswell of support. Alignment began to build organically, from a basis of trust and respect for our efforts.

As our sales enablement strategy continues to mature, we hope to see this transformation filter through the entire company, ultimately impacting Red Hat's success in the market.

To succeed, I believe it's critical to stay tuned into what matters to your organization's people and culture.

There are no clearly defined thresholds for making certain alignment decisions that will apply to every open organization. To succeed, I believe it's critical to stay tuned into what matters to your organization's people and culture. By considering the level of alignment necessary for different types of projects, and at different points in a project's lifecycle—and by making your work open for others to see and contribute to—you can build a foundation of trust that enables future collaboration and shared success.

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DeLisa Alexander | DeLisa is Executive Vice President and Chief People Officer at Red Hat. Under her leadership, this team focuses on acquiring, developing, and retaining talent and enhancing the Red Hat culture and brand.

1 Comment

Making progress towards clear objectives is the most important thing, so yes, you sometimes need to make decisions and work even without full consensus.

The big question for the modern world: how can we quantify the different levels of consensus or ways that leaders make final decisions in traditional settings (i.e. corporations following OpenOrg principles) versus in open source projects (i.e. various contributors from around the world)?

In a traditional corporation - no matter how open - the CEO or board can simply make a decision and enforce it. There are various ways that hierarchy still has some power even when seeking consensus. But those don't (necessarily) translate to open source governance, where the participants don't have any external or financial hierarchy.

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