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The Unexpected Benefits Of ‘Working Open’

In insight / By Doug Belshaw / 28 October 2016

It’s funny. If you believed a lot of management consultants, all you need to do is pay people more and you get the best people lining up at your door ready to work for you.

Compensation is everything!

Except, of course, that this fails to explain open source software, Wikipedia, and why tens of thousands of super-talented people around the world choose to work for tiny startups and non-profits when they could work for huge, multinational corporations.

So what makes the difference? In my experience, having worked for Mozilla, collaborated with organisations like Creative Commons, and with friends at places like Greenpeace, there’s a several reasons.

One that comes up time and time again is the ability to work open on something that matters. In this post, I want to explain what it means to ‘work open’, provide some examples, and suggest some small steps you can take in your own organisation.

What is ‘working open’?

At it’s heart, working openly is a means to an end.

As Matt Thompson, a Senior Director at Mozilla notes, that end may be enabling useful participation in a process, becoming more agile, producing visible progress and momentum, or perhaps doing good in the world.

I think there’s an important distinction worth making at this point between what I’d call working ‘open’ and working ‘transparently’.

The former is something that is publicly-accessible, whereas the latter is working within the confines of your organisation.

What they definitely have in common is pushing your work and making it available to the far reaches of your community. Too often, our default way of operating is to keep our cards close to our chest.

In practice, working open might be as simple as setting a Microsoft Onedrive document to being either ‘publicly accessible’ or at the very least available to everyone within your organisation.

From there, you can share the link with whoever you want. In other words, the default is towards sharing and accessibility, reducing the friction your colleagues feel on an everyday basis.

Some numbers estimate that office workers can spend around 40% of their time trying to access information they can and should have at their fingertips. Working open massively reduces barriers to information by ensuring workers have everything they need, on-demand.

But working open isn’t just a shift in procedural, surface-level skillsets. It’s fundamentally a shift in mindsets.

Instead of jealously guarding our ideas in case someone steals them, working open allows us to put them out there so we can gain valuable feedback.

There are certainly situations where other people and organisations are looking to steal your IP, but most of the time sharing within an industry, and certainly within an organisation, just makes sense.

As anyone in business knows, ideas are ten-a-penny, but execution is everything.

Radical Openness

In the article mentioned above from Mozilla, the author talks about openness being on a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum is ‘closed’. This is absolutely appropriate for personal data and things that should be locked down and secured.

At the other end of the spectrum is ‘shouting from the rooftops’. For Nasstar, that’s the ‘news’ section of this new blog.

It’s a place to tell the world about the latest and greatest things that are happening with the company. It’s a place to tell positive stories.

There is a world of nuance, however, these two ends of the spectrum. There are, if you’ll pardon the pun, at least 50 shades of open.

More traditional companies are missing a trick if they default to fully closed ways of working.

Not everything is mission-critical.

Some - in fact, most - information within a company could be shared in a more open and/or transparent way.

Mozilla is a radically open organisation. I’ve never experienced anything like it. They’re publicly crowdsourcing their new logo design, which is one of the boldest moves I’ve ever seen a organisation make.

On a less flamboyant level, though, companies are increasingly coming to realise that putting artificial barriers up to the knowledge they generate just gets in the way of collaboration with other organisations, rather than actually making their overall system more secure.

One of the principles of the co-op I helped found is that every organisation exists on the spectrum of openness. For most organisations, moving towards increasingly open ways of working reduces friction and leads to much greater efficiency. It also helps surface talent from all parts of your organisation, rather than assuming innovation comes from the top!

Next steps: how to work more open

Going from lock-down to completely open working practices is a big ask for most organisations. It takes time, a change in culture, and trust when you’ve been used to holding your cards (and your information) close to your chest.

Here are three tips that can help you along the way to working more openly.

1. Make everything easy to find

This sounds obvious, but ensure that all of the information required by your colleagues can be found by them, quickly and easily, without having to disturb you.

The best way I’ve come across for doing this is to have a ‘canonical URL’ for everything. In other words, there’s a single link that you share per project, and everything that anyone involved in that project is shareable from that location.

The huge benefits of this include: friction being reduced for existing team members, bottlenecks are removed, and any new members of the project team can be instantly onboarded.

Inboxes no longer fill up with emails asking for copies of documents, everyone knows what to pay attention to, and version control means everyone is on the same page!

One benefit often overlooked is that, by working openly, people who haven’t come across you before can quickly review your work history and identity.

It helps everyone be up-to-speed more quickly.

2. Embrace a diversity of ways of working

As Peter Drucker states in Managing Oneself, it’s important for team members to know how to interact with one another.

This could include reflections on your own communication style, or by providing expectations in terms of the channels for those interactions. Closed working practices force individuals to work within a monoculture, and at the speed of their slowest (or busiest) colleague.

Working open, on the other hand, means that you’re dealing in a much more lightweight, agile way. People are not committed to silos - either in terms of tools, or in terms of people with whom they can share information.

As soon as you remove bottlenecks to information and allow people to work in a way that they choose, you find a couple of unexpected things emerging.

The first is that people start helping one another level-up in tools that make them more productive in digital spaces.

The second is that physical spaces change, too. Colleagues may realise that they could be equally productive working from home, or that they should move floors to be closer to others who are part of their cross-functional team.

3. Document all the things

We’ve all come across the passive-aggressive colleague who documents everything by email to provide an audit trail in order to make them look good.

A much more progressive, enlightened, and collaborative alternative to this is providing a ‘breadcrumb trail’ for your actions to enable others to follow along with what you’re working on.

Documenting everything is much easier to do when you’re working openly. For example, you might blog about what your team has been working on that week using ‘weeknote’ format.

Alternatively, your team might update Trello cards or send pull requests on GitHub when they perform certain actions.

It might just be that you give everyone a heads-up in a workplace chat environment like Slack that you’re about to, or have already done something. Whatever form it takes, there are ways to keep colleagues informed that don’t involve attaching documents to emails.

Final word

In one sense, it’s difficult to put into words the difference between working in traditional, closed, ways, and working in a more progressive open and/or transparent way.

I’ve certainly found that those who have made the switch never want to go back to their old ways of working. It’s quite literally the case that people don’t know what they don’t know - especially around ways of working, which people tend to learn through osmosis.

If you do give this a try, I would highly recommend reading a book by Jim Whitehurst, CEO of Redhat, entitled The Open Organization: igniting passion and performance.

Along with the accompanying, and regularly updated, blog it’s an eye-opening journey into new, more open ways of working.

Many thanks to Ian O’Byrne, Oliver Quinlan, and Eylan Ezekiel for comments on an earlier draft of this article.

Doug Belshaw

Doug Belshaw

Dr. Doug Belshaw is an 'Open Educational Thinkerer' who works at the intersection of education, technology, and productivity. Formerly at the Mozilla Foundation, he now consults on a worldwide basis.

Morpeth, England
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