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We Work in Public

by Polly LaBarre on September 9, 2010


polly-labarre's picture

We Work in Public

My conversation with our newest MIX Maverick Andrew McAfee yielded all kinds of bracing insight when it comes to how we set strategy, structure work, unleash talent, and measure success. But I haven’t been able to shake one idea in particular he threw out at the end of our conversation as a provocation.

First, we spent a lot of time on how the job of a leader changes in a world that is increasingly open, powered by social technologies, and morphing at warp speed. Andrew calls this world Enterprise 2.0. In this world, says Andrew, “If you want good things to happen, get out of the way. Let people interact and collaborate and communicate in the ways that are most natural to them. Then your job as the leader of the organization is to simply put in place the environment that lets them do that, encourage them to do that, and then harvest the good stuff that comes from all of their interactions.”

In other words, the job description of the leader has officially changed from “smartest guy in the room” to chief promoter of the idea that nobody’s as smart as everybody. It’s not your job as the leader any longer to come up with all the answers, think all the smart thoughts, solve all the big problems. Instead, it’s the leader’s job to invite as many smart people into the room as possible, to create opportunities for and channel contributions from the broadest mix of people—wherever they sit in the organization (or the world). This isn’t news, but it’s important (and hard) enough to bear repeating.

If that’s one of the fundamental shifts in organizational life today, its twin is even more striking—not least because it affects every single one of us who works. As Andrew puts it, if the leader’s job is to “get out of the way”, the individual worker’s job is to get into the fray. What does that mean? Throughout the history of the industrial organization work has largely been a private, confined affair—and all too often its product aimed as much at advancing an individual’s career as the organization’s interests. Until recently, most work has been done behind the closed office door, with “work in progress” shared rarely and mostly in polished, structured forums (memos, reports, PowerPoint presentations, conference rooms) that drain it of all its juice, raw edges, and possibility for true collaboration.

That simply doesn’t cut it in a world of warp-speed change, hyper-competition, and innovation everywhere. Credit the widespread embrace of design thinking, the celebration of prototyping and co-creation, the emergence of a powerful set of universally accessible social technologies, and a profound power and values shift—it all adds up to new imperatives not only for leaders but for every worker. As Andrew said, we all “need to be comfortable working in a much more public, very transparent, collaborative fashion—to do what blog pioneer Dave Winer calls ‘narrating your work.’” That’s the core responsibility that goes along with all the new freedoms and power offered up by the new world of work.

What does this actually mean in practice? Must we all blog and tweet and wiki-fy our work? Well, yes, says Andrew. We all need to be visibly “contributing, authoring, talking, blogging, narrating, uploading in a public way.” But the technology is just a tool (as ever) for making our work in progress more transparent, more shareable, more helpful to our colleagues and the wider community. This is SOP for the Facebook generation, but I think Andrew’s putting it lightly when he says “it’s a fairly big shift for anyone over the age of 28 inside the organization.”

As important as it is to get comfortable with the new set of tools, it’s infinitely more important to adopt a fundamental mindshift when it comes to your work: from a focus on how do I get my work done, advance myself, and make a good impression on the boss to how can I help? How can I open up my process, share my struggles, narrate my path to insight in a way that brings the team along and creates all kinds of opportunity for interaction, connection, and innovation?

The trick is building this thinking and behavior into the work itself, rather than treating it as an added task. In my last post, I talked about how Pixar builds this kind of behavior into the fabric of the organization with the ruling mantra of “art as a team sport” and the shared behavior of “measure and display.” Those practices offer a great example of the profound rewards of this kind of collegiality—for the organization (in terms of stunning and sustained success) and for the individual (in terms of a genuine sense of belonging, contribution, and real expansion of capabilities). What’s more, Pixar demonstrates that “narrating your work” isn’t an exclusively digital affair. When I visited the company during the final wave of work on The Incredibles, I saw a felt and popsicle stick work progress chart outside the office of the director Brad Bird—an instant and engaging visual representation of the state of play for everyone who walked by.

Andrew’s zinger when it comes to instituting this mindshift into our work stays with me. He asked, what if your “enterprise helpfulness” became the ultimate measure of your contribution? We have all the tools to assess how good a colleague someone is—how open, how collaborative, how bold—why not bake that into the job requirement? And in the meantime, why not explore the idea on your own? It wouldn’t take much: tweet an “idea of the day” for your colleagues, set up an internal wiki (or a physical display) for a project you’re working on, make a quick video to recap a working session or share a new insight. It doesn’t matter what form it takes, figure out one simple way to open up your work and share your progress and emerging insights with your colleagues. Have fun with it! And share your experiences with your wider community here on the MIX.

What does “enterprise helpfulness” mean to you? What examples have you seen in practice? What are some potentially powerful mechanisms for cultivating this quality in your organization? Share your ideas and stories here in the comments, in response to Andrew’s blog and videos, or contribute a hack or story.

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ellen-weber's picture
Thanks Polly, Andrew's Video and this post are especially timely, since I am embarking on planning a University  Program for teaching Innovation Leadership, and this set of ideas inspires many "getting out of the way," approaches in me.

 I have more of a question on Andrew's notion of "openness," than a suggestion though - and I wonder how others feel. For instance, I always value it more when a MIX member adds a comment or question on the post, rather than simply pop in a rate without insights or question offered. It seems more open, and encourages growth or sparks affirmation. What do you think?

In the same vein, openness is seen in colleagues' questions when they come without bias, and with a genuine desire to learn more about another person's insights.

That said, my question: How can one instill the kind of openness that builds trust and sparks finer effort and talents from others, so that leaders can get out of the way and innovation can flourish? Can you elaborate a bit more on "openness" here - as you see it?