The Open Organization, book review: Inspiring business from the bottom up

Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst explains why organisations should be open, agile and responsive. These are admirable ideas, although examples of their application in challenging conditions would be useful.

The Open Organization: Igniting Passion and Performance • By Jim Whitehurst • Harvard Business Review Press • 227 pages • ISBN: 978-1-62527-527-1 • $30

Jim Whitehurst writes with the impassioned zeal of the convert. His story starts with the day he was asked to interview for the CEO job at Red Hat, the leading open-source software company, and all three of the people he met sequentially ran out of cash. He found himself stumping up for coffee, then lunch, and finally gas money for his ride to the airport. "Is this a gag?" he wondered.

The question was understandable: Whitehurst's previous job was running Delta Air Lines, a rigidly hierarchical organisation that he'd overseen through a turnaround. His experience at Delta, where he'd had to lay off 10,000 people, was part of why he was interested in a growing company driven by a vision of the future it wanted to create.

The two companies, Whitehurst writes in The Open Organization: Igniting Passion and Performance, couldn't be more different. Where Delta was a traditional top-down company managed by numbers and rules, Red Hat is driven by passion and a sense of purpose that radiate upwards from the bottom. Most business books are written by consultants pushing a single, usually one-word concept. Whitehurst, however, writes as a CEO who wants to show other managers how to emulate Red Hat's example.

He is most interesting in the early part of the book, when he's recounting his experience as he learned to cope with what at first seemed to him like chaos and abandon his first idea -- that he was there to help the company "grow up". Coming from a company where issuing an order for a research report produced a research report, he's taken aback when the same request at Red Hat produced this cheerful dismissal a couple of days later: "We decided it was a bad idea, so we scrapped it."

Whitehurst goes on to discuss how to inspire and motivate, how to encourage passion and engagement, and how to act as a catalyst for good decisions. Along the way, he includes examples of how other organisation, including Zappos, Starbucks and Whole Food, have applied the same ideas.

Common sense

A lot of this sounds like common sense: employees are more likely to be engaged when they feel their ideas are listened to, are more likely to respect leaders who embrace disagreement and allow the best ideas to win out, and are likely to be more productive in an organisation that allows the emotional freedom to be passionate about what they do. (Having said that, the book should really have a companion wiki in which Red Hat employees get to add comments and annotations to their CEO's text.)

These are good ideas with a proven track record, but here's my question. It's easy to get the well-compensated employees of a company that sees itself as changing the world to have a motivating sense of purpose. They have their mission -- that's why they work at Red Hat. Whole Foods, Zappos, Pixar, and the other companies upon whose experience Whitehurst draws are also companies that saw themselves as pioneers opening up a new frontier.

But how do you get the same passion and purpose in a company that produces ball bearings? If these ideas had been in place before Delta got into trouble, how would they have changed that company's trajectory? Could they have saved Eastman Kodak when digital photography began killing its market? I'd love to see how Whitehurst would apply the Red Hat Way in less favourable conditions.