Becoming open without turning into a mesmerized chicken

Learning to be open without turning into a mesmerized chicken

Three years after immersion in open principles, a starry-eyed dreamer contemplates the limits of being a steward for organizational culture.

Learning to be open without turning into a mesmerized chicken
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I received my signed copy of The Open Organization straight from Jim Whitehurst's hand just around the time I started living the open organization dream. I'd recently been promoted to take on a new role that I'd designed myself—a bit of meritocracy in action that proved to me how standing fully in open organization values can lead to great rewards. So when I penned a review of the book, it was so saccharine that my editors called me a "starry-eyed dreamer." I'd been convinced that this book was more than a PR stunt, more than words on a page. This was my truth. I embodied the open organization.

Three years have since passed, during which our growing community has published supporting materials that can help individuals, teams, and entire organizations better understand the characteristics that define open organizations, identify where they are on the maturity scale, and start taking steps to work more openly. We've published hundreds of articles, leaving no doubt that working more openly—e.g., being more transparent, inclusive, adaptable, collaborative, and focused on community—leads to greater agility, faster innovation, and increased engagement. Everyone wins.

And yet despite that wealth of validation in our community, time and experience have tempered my enthusiasm. Even Jim admits that The Open Organization doesn't describe every day at Red Hat; it describes how Red Hat operates on our best days, which implies there are days on which we lose sight of our values and fall prey to the same bureaucratic, manipulative behaviors that plague every corporation of certain size—for example, telling someone they can't speak out against an issue because it might stir a negative reaction, discouraging participation in open source communities during free time, or (even worse) withholding information as a weapon, perhaps in service of building an empire or forcing someone out. Some of these behaviors seem inevitable, as we are, after all, still trying to scale a successful business that creates profit for shareholders.

But if those shareholders and leaders start rewarding behaviors (perhaps through promotions and variable compensation) that rub against our stated values, then working openly might at some point become detrimental to my career.

This idea—that I will be more successful if I act in my own interests rather than in the interest of the community (or in this case, company)—seems antithetical to the open principles of transparency, inclusivity, adaptability, collaboration, and community.

I've been exploring these thoughts for several months now, which means I've found my connection to and passion for The Open Organization waning—so much so that my first reaction when asked to revisit my three-year-old review was: "Are you sure? I'm not so starry-eyed anymore."

Wait a second

In February 2018, Michael Lynch—a now-former software engineer at Google—published "Why I Quit Google to Work for Myself." On my team and among my colleagues, the piece sparked critical discussions about the importance of transparent promotion practices (which are very important for many reasons). But they glossed over the bit that bothered me, which was this:

Wait a second. I was in a business relationship with Google.

It may sound strange that it took me two and a half years to realize it, but Google does a good job of building a sense of community within the organization. To make us feel that we're not just employees, but that we are Google.

That conversation made me realize that I'm not Google. I provide a service to Google in exchange for money.

That hits home. And I mean literally, because hanging in my closet right now are several t-shirts with variations of "I AM RED HAT" printed on them (one in several different languages). I spend most of my time at work serving as guardian and steward of our culture, believing that I can call out deviations from our shared values at any time, to any person of any rank, not only without fear of retribution, but with probability of reward; that full transparency and inclusivity are non-negotiable; that putting the company's interests above my own in career decisions will lead to greater success for both because we're all in this together.

But Lynch is right, isn't he? At the end of the day, I am in a business relationship with my employer, and I'd likely be better served in the long run by acting as guardian and steward of my own career rather than the company's principles.

This idea—that I will be more successful if I act in my own interests rather than in the interest of the community (or in this case, company)—seems antithetical to the open principles of transparency, inclusivity, adaptability, collaboration, and community. Could it really be true everywhere, even at the company that wrote the book on open organizations? A couple of wires shorted in my brain. I felt like I had just learned the role of Santa Claus had been played by my parents.

Another mesmerized chicken

Hearing of my plight, friend and fellow Open Organization Ambassador Laura Hilliger recommended I read Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool's Guide to Surviving with Grace by Gordon MacKenzie. It's a great book that's easy to read, and I also highly recommend it to anyone trying to maintain their creativity and authenticity in a corporate environment. The book revealed (among other things) that part of my problem stems from being a mesmerized chicken.

MacKenzie tells a story about his father's childhood visit to a cousin's farm, where the cousin hypnotizes chickens by touching their beaks to a white chalk line. Apparently the chickens just stand still with their beaks on the line, unmoving, only coming back to consciousness when jostled so their beaks leave the chalk. MacKenzie compares this to a company's culture: When you join an organization, they put your beak on the chalk line of their history, policies, and procedures, hoping to hypnotize you. MacKenzie's advice is to remember that we all come into an organization with an "arcane potency" that allows us to contribute something wholly unique:

So, whenever you feel your head being pushed down onto an organization's cultural chalk line, remember the challenge is to move out of the way, to choose not to be mesmerized by the culture of your company. Instead, find the goals of the organization that touch your heart and release your passion to follow those goals.

It is a delicate balance, resisting the hypnotic spell of an organization's culture and, at the same time, remaining committed from the heart to the personally relevant goals of the organization. But if you can achieve that balance and maintain it, you will be out of the Hairball and into Orbit, the only place where you can tap your one-of-a-kind magic, your genius, your limitless creativity.

I realized there might be two separate cultures in open organizations of certain size. There's what MacKenzie calls the Hairball: traditional corporate policies and procedures, the layers of command and control and political game-playing that can be found in most upper levels of larger corporations. But there is also a huge contingent of people in Orbit, people genuinely dedicated to a mission—in our case, people who believe open unlocks the world's potential and who are dedicated to proving it.

I realized there might be two separate cultures in open organizations of certain size.

As MacKenzie suggests, the real magic is in figuring out which of your personal goals align with the goals of your organization, then championing those. It's then the company's responsibility to promote and reward the right behaviors, presumably in effort to reduce the size of the Hairball and provide fuel to those in Orbit.

Here's to the next three years

As Jim said, The Open Organization describes how most of us work on our best days. Although we're not perfect—and every team within the company is at a different stage in the maturity model—what binds us together is the drive to be better, to be a little more open every day. What's most important is that we continue to foster a culture that's reflexive enough to question itself, to adjust itself, and to encourage people to break from that chalk line when and where they can.

As for me, I'll admit the stars are gone from my eyes. But I think I prefer what's left: a clear view of our potential as colleagues and communities to define and promote a collaborative way of working that helps us more efficiently solve the complex problems on the horizon.

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About the author

Allison Matlack - Allison is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer turned Principal Product Communications Strategist at Red Hat who is known for her enthusiastic speaking style and passion for helping leaders inspire their teams. She's an experienced Agile practitioner and coach of software engineering teams in various stages of maturity, as well as a communications specialist with a change-management style steeped in the tradition of the Open Decision Framework. She's honored to have been an Open Organization...