The Open Organization: Igniting Passion and Performance


I had a wonderful opportunity to listen to Jim Whitehurst’s (Chief Executive Officer at Red Hat) summarization of a new book he has just published i.e. “The Open Organization – Igniting Passion and Performance”. It began with a humorous note on how employees had written to him about his un-ironed shirt during his keynote address at the 2014 Red Hat Summit.

The overall theme of the book is around how the old and traditional style of top-down engagement is changing at least in the open source world, and that most ideas originate and bubble their way up. It is the responsibility of management to help get those ideas realized. He summarizes it well in his view below:

He talked about the his days at Delta when he and his COO were discussing the plans to file for bankruptcy which included laying of many of the night shift mechanics at the hangers who were junior staff. At one point he was scheduled by someone to talk to the night shift mechanics, no security around all by himself. He was there unprepared, and then thinking what to and how to say or deliver the bad news, he simply spoke to them about the whole situation and the entire plan going forward at length and taking questions. The mechanics listened with intent and came up with ideas such as on-time flights. The next day, his leadership came back and told him that all other hanger mechanics had requested him to come and give the talk about whatever he had told the previous night.

There were a number of lessons learned from the Delta experience – A top executive spending so much time explaining the situation and the go-forward plan to a group of juniors, being open and transparent and listening to the ideas that came from the bottom up makes a tremendous difference. In successive months, Delta was the only airline with a few exceptions to have the on-time record.

The old management approaches and principles such as Maslow’s Theory X and Y have all to be looked at from today’s perspective. The company leaders must clearly articulate where they want to lead the company, who do they want to attract and how they plan to retain them. The employees have to understand the purpose i.e. corporate strategy and how each one’s role fits into that.

Most ideas in a company originate from the bottom. People contribute ideas and build reputation, and ideas that originate from people with “reputation” always resonate well and gain acceptance from everyone.
I thought the analogy of “Thermometer “and “Thermostat” was a good one. One shows the temperature and the other sets it. Great companies attract more thermostats. Some other things he talked about were how current thinking has proved through studies and research that “Brainstorming sucks” and that “Sparks must fly – i.e. free confrontation and constructive dialogue”.

The role of the CEO in an “Open Organization” is to catalyze the direction that has been distilled all the way to the top.