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How Red Hat found its mission—the open source way

by Jim Whitehurst on August 16, 2011


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How Red Hat found its mission—the open source way

One of the things that attracted me to Red Hat in the first place was that it was a company with a strong sense of purpose. Red Hat was a company full of believers, people who felt that the open source development model was simply a better way.

During my first few months as CEO, I traveled to Red Hat offices around the world and was often floored by the passion people felt about the company. I began to ask myself, how can we bottle this passion? Can we channel all of this energy and point it in the same direction?

In my experience, one of the most important tools of management is a core company mission that helps the company point all of its resources and energy toward a set of positive outcomes. That mission should answer two questions—what we are trying to do and how we are going to do it— in a simple way that any employee can understand.

When I arrived at Red Hat, there was already a vision for the company (Red Hat called it a raison d'etre) and it read as follows:

"To be the defining technology company of the 21st century, and through our actions strengthen the social fabric by continually democratizing content and technology."

This was a heady statement. It showed the scale of our ambition—to be the defining technology company of the 21st century—but, as I began to discuss it with employees around the company, I got the distinct impression many people didn't understand what it meant or what it was telling them to do. Meanwhile, as is often the case in an open source organization like Red Hat, a passionate group of folks had come together and were already thinking about how to solve the problem.

This group was made up of people who'd joined forces to ensure Red Hat's corporate strategy wasn't just words on paper, but instead was deeply embedded within the organization. They had quickly come to the conclusion Red Hat needed something more directional than the "defining technology company" vision to connect the overall vision to the strategic plan.

By the time they approached me, the team had already crafted some sample "mission" statements for me to look at. We gathered around and looked at all of the things they had come up with, debating the merits of each. In a few short hours of work, we developed a statement that felt pretty comfortable to all of us. But then we did something most companies wouldn't dream of doing.

Rather than going straight to my senior executive team to get their opinion first, or continuing to muck around with the words for weeks or months to get them just perfect, we employed an open source technique our engineers sometimes refer to as "release early, release often."

Rather than continuing to craft the company mission behind closed doors, we showed it to the whole company. In draft form. Before it was perfect.

And we asked everyone what they thought of it. We asked which parts resonated most. We asked them what we should change. What asked for suggestions to make it better. Anyone could give us feedback, and many did. There was thoughtful discussion, some fantastic suggestions for wording changes, even some argument and disagreement about whether this truly reflected what the company was trying to achieve.

I believe this was a conversation the company needed to have.

One benefit was that it engaged many thoughtful employees in a discussion about why they were doing their jobs. It's not often during a hectic day (especially in a growing technology company) that people take the time to think about the forest instead of the trees, and opening up the process of defining the Red Hat mission give them an excuse to do exactly that.

But perhaps the biggest benefit was that, by asking employees to become a part of the process, and then taking some of their best feedback and using it to improve the mission itself, we gave them ownership of the mission.

How many company missions have you seen where it was clear that it was written by either a) the CEO sitting alone late one evening or b) an executive committee that came to a sterile compromise?

And how do most employees react to those mission statements? Case closed. In the open source world, we believe the best ideas should win, no matter where they come from.

In many organizations it is not possible for the best ideas to win because they are hidden in the brains of people who sit many layers of management deep in the organization. The best ideas get lost as they make their way up through the hierarchy. We cut through the hierarchy, and took our draft mission right to the people. We were able to get the best ideas, unfiltered by management, and apply them right away.

Our final Red Hat mission is this:

"To be the catalyst in communities of customers, contributors, and partners creating better technology the open source way."

Here's a short, one minute long video that will explain to you what it means.

Allowing ideas to come from anywhere, opening up the creation of the mission so that anyone could contribute early in the process, promoting discussion and dialog, then finally allowing the best ideas to win-- this is how we created the Red Hat mission the open source way.

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