The road toward an open organization

The road toward an open organization

John XXIII was once asked how many people worked at the Vatican. After pretending to do a mental calculation, he replied, “About half of them”. So, how many people truly work in your organization? Or, how many of them work above half of their potential?

There was a book in my father’s private library, When China Awakens… the World Will Tremble (Peyrefitte, 1973). It’s awake now, and it is in fact transforming the world. How could your company transform if its people woke up? So much lethargic, uncoordinated or contentious talent just waiting to be unleashed.

Sigfrido is an expert construction manager. Lately there have been changes at the top of the company and he feels marginalized. He criticizes his bosses and is quarreling with Aranda, the comptroller at the office. The deadline for finishing the project he’s leading is up in the air. Everyone’s rowing in a separate direction. The boss of both, Martí, is trying to get the most from Sigfrido’s professional talent.

Martí: Look, Sigfrido, I don’t understand your actions. I also don’t get why you’re treating Aranda like that. If on top of all the problems at the site, we’re not on the same page, we’ll never get anywhere. What’s happening with you and Aranda?

Sigfrido: I can’t help it. He makes me nervous. I don’t know why you give him so much credit. He’s awful

Martí: No, c’mon! It’s true that he talks a lot, but he works hard and means well.

(Sigfrido doesn’t reply)

Martí: You also have to realize that while I’m the manager at the site, you’re the construction manager and the direct boss.

(Sigfrido starts laughing)

For years we’ve been talking about promoting Open Organizations, needed to face the challenges that surround us. But this won’t mean anything if we can’t tap the talent and hearts of the people that work in our companies.

Removing partitions, creating wide-open spaces and opening a Knowledge Sharing space on the intranet is all great. But these tools, while valuable, won’t be of any use without a change in culture and attitude. It’s the change in the people, not the structure, that makes the difference. Or, put another way, how should a successful change in attitude be structured?

If people’s closed attitudes don’t change, the corporate intranet will remain empty and only irrelevant topics will be shared. And employees will continue to hide in the building, sharing feelings with coworkers and criticizing their bosses. Some of the prototypical symptoms of a closed organization are:

  • Looking behind a door before starting a juicy conversation.
  • Being warned for sending emails to certain recipients.
  • Fantasizing about the salaries “earned”.
  • Bosses say things like, “My office door is always open”.
  • Employees behave differently when the boss is away.

The boss steps into the office and complains, “What are you doing not working at this hour” To which they reply, “Sorry boss, we didn’t see you come in”.

Some of the milestones that we have to dare to face to achieve an Open Organization are:

  1. Opening up Information(on salaries and results too). Every employee at SEMCO, in São Paulo, knows the company’s figures. And they’re given basic accounting seminars to learn to interpret them. Clients and suppliers have access to working climate studies and are invited to visit the company during open days.
  2. Opening up Meetings. Where people aren’t afraid to own up to mistakes. Bosses talk little. Where there’s a calm dialogue that provides value and answers questions. Where people say what they think and think what they say. Where it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.

At the Dutch healthcare company BUURTZORG, the productivity ratios of teams are shared. Everyone can see who’s doing badly and in what… and, try to help? And right here in Sabadell, in FLUIDRA, the lowliest employee can meet with Eloi Planes, the CEO, and discuss his concerns face to face.

  1. Open Doors. No culture of clocking people in and out. Employees come and go as they please. No official work hours. It’s just as likely for an outsider to walk into an internal meeting at the office, as for an internal meeting to be held offsite, at the offices of a collaborator.
  2. Open Bosses. Although no supervisor admits to being unavailable, finding them “free in their office” is harder than parking in Times Square. You may walk by them in the hall, but you live in different worlds. In an episode of the series House, a patient tells the doctor, “You have a ‘Do not disturb’ sign on your forehead”, to which he replies, “Oh dear, I told them to nail it to the door”.

And so we come around yet again to the question of the Leadership Model that prevails at this company. Are we open to ideas from below? Are decisions made at the top or at the bottom? Who listens to whom, the boss to the collaborator or vice versa? Who waits for whom? Who calls meetings and decides on topics or preferences?

And we also come to the need to adopt a peaceful approach to leadership, one that has time to help, to listen and to care, and to think. Just worrying less about the everyday work frees up the mind to be a leader who develops and inspires.

I almost forgot! Whatever happened to Sigfrido and his construction site in Marbella? Well, someone came from the office in Alicante and after checking the progress of the project asked him “What do you think we should do?

And with this simple opening question, Sigfrido’s jaw dropped, and he spewed out a complete plan for finishing the work correctly and on time. And it was a success.

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