During the last few years I have noticed something I would like to write about today: The fear of opening up your company and communication to the public. I am not talking about showing everyone on the planet your bookkeeping or the deepest company secrets, let alone the really valuable stuff from your research and development labs. No I am talking about the way people work at the company and what they produce and achieve.

I have not studied anything like management and/or economics and therefore I have no idea what people are being taught in the respective classes at universities. But I have a feeling that it is something which is quite different from what the world expects and feels like out there. Text book company guidelines seem to be different from what one expects from a modern corporation.

Driven by fear and competition

Wonderful people to work with

When I am working for and with bigger corporations I have had the chance to work with some of the brightest people in my industry and I am happy and thankful to join forces with them to get projects up and running. Many of them were external consultants in their field, some worked within the corporations. Working on and communicating the idea of UI engineering with Dennis is one of the outcomes of such wonderful working relationships.

The setup

So the setup is a bit like this: Company hires external people who have lots of knowledge gathered in many projects and situations. Why do they have such exhaustive knowledge? Because they have been in many projects, yes. They have seen it all (until they encounter yet another new dimension of –placetopichere–.

Smart people do not keep things to themselves

But: Probably just as important is the fact that all of them read a lot, surf the web in search for ideas, and discussing theories or proposals which are being published by other smart people. They listen to podcasts where other experts share their experiences. People get into an open discourse and exchange ideas, sometimes they even fight about it. Why? Because they care. Are they afraid to give away too much of their knowledge? Do they think that someone else is taking away their business because the readers or listeners just have all their knowledge after consuming their published thoughts and content? Of course not.

What are smart companies doing?

Now what about many large companies. Let me take an example: Twitter developed bootstrap and open sourced it. They created a styleguide with all bells and whistles. In public. Available for everyone to take a look at and learn from it. So did Fontshop, and Starbucks, and and and …

Why did they do it? Because they love the products they created. They felt like showing everyone what they have been working on and how they feel it should be. Are they afraid to loose business? Will another company selling overpriced coffee kick them out of business because they can copy or borrow their styleguide ideas? No, not at all. Do you think Starbucks attracted a few new developers because they were attracted by the cool styleguide? I am pretty sure they did. How often has Starbucks been referenced as a leader and progressive company in presentations around the globe when consultants pulled up their styleguide website or just screenshots of it? Often, super often. Did that hurt their brand? I would not bet a single penny on it. I would bet my entire savings that this made the brand even more interesting to many in the audience. I would consider this a smart move by starbucks, twitter, and all the unmentioned open-minded companies. Yes, you can disagree with the way companies buy their coffee, rice, steel, diamonds, kill the rainforests, use non-renewable energy sources, polute water or whatever. But you have to love them for their openness and willingness to share knowledge.

OMG! This was expensive! We cannot show this for free.

So, some of my clients and corporations I worked with or had the chance to consult, thought they would give away trade secrets when they would publish their styleguide for instance. The fear of having invested in developing something and having paid a lot for it made them think that this needs to be protected: „Hey, Frodo, gimme that ring …!“

Why giving is stronger than locking up

But why, they asked, should we make things public? No one needs our exact styleguide. Why tell our competitors what we do?

Attract the smart ones

First of all: I mentioned the HR department already. You have spent a lot of money on your pattern library? Make the money work for you. Let it recruit developers who love it and love what you did. Save some hiring fees for headhunters and let the halo effect of the pattern library recruit for you. But here is the catch: It should be a living pattern library. Show the folks out there that you are actually working with your pattern library. No commits to it in the history? Not attractive because it seems doomed and abandoned.

Give and take and give

Why is publishing your work a good thing beyond that? Well it is probably not just your work. How many open source libraries have you used in the process? What is your server running on? Is there an obligation to give back? I think so. Would you like someone who always shows up for dinner at your place, stuffs himself and never invites you back? What do you think is the reputation of someone like that? Now think about taking all the open source libraries and not showing others what you have done with it? See any differences? Go figure. Potential job candidates see this as well.

Who wants to work in fear

There is more to it: When you work in a culture where information is not shared by default, you have the problem as an employee, and as a freelancer working for that company, that you live in constant fear to reveal too much. Am I allowed to share this information? Not only because you feel like sharing but for instance when you want to discuss a task or problem with others outside this company. Basically you cut off your easily accessible resources. What a trade-off! You loose access to information plus you have people working on a project being hindered by the fear that they could do the wrong thing. Can it get any worse? From my point of view this is stronger than any great retreat where employees are supposed to build trust and get motivated. I have seen this happening more than once. And some of those companies have a great (meaning: sick) sense of humour by putting up signs where it says that they are an open company and foster curiosity and adventurous attitudes. And to be crystal clear about it: I did not finish all of my engagements with these companies. in two cases I enabled others to take over and left them, advising them to figure out what they really want.

Handling mistakes

Now, let’s talk about the „secret stuff“. Obviously there are information which are not supposed to be made public. Financial information, personal data, etc. should be protected. And even when many complain about European data protection laws, I am happy that we have them. The devil is in the details of course.

Oooops, now this is public …

So you have made a mistake, despite the fact that your company is promoting transparency and openness. It is probably a matter of severeness but I feel that there is only one real way to deal with it. Tell people why it was wrong. Make sure everyone understands the implications. Discuss why this was wrong. And try to avoid finger pointing. This again will create an atmosphere of fear. Again people will start worrying about what they say and what not. If this happens, you are back to square one as a company.

Everyone loves cakes and nobody hates Frank

I learned about a fail cake a few months ago at a conference. People are supposed to bake a cake to show that they understood that something went wrong. And then while everyone gets together to talk about it they have the cake. I love this idea, because it is barely possible to have cake and go ballistic on a colleague. Cake brings peace to the table.

Are you blaming and shaming someone in public? Only when people start complaining about a person continuously. When you foster and cherish an atmosphere where it is „Frank tripped over this topic. How can we help everyone to avoid this in the future now as we know that there is a need to change something. Frank took one for the team. Let us make the most of this!“ instead of „Frank failed! We need to make sure that this mistake is prevented. We do not want more people behaving like Frank!“ you win.

The latter is just plain horrible for the person who made the mistake. It is blamed on them alone. But is that true? Was he really the only guilty one? Were the circumstances and the fact that information was not labeled classified a mistake by Robert and Julia as well? Probably to some extent. So why stigmatise Frank?

I am not promoting a culture of not caring here. When people go overboard too often one has to find the root of why this is happening. Potentially this could not work out, and yes maybe that person „does not fit“, but that should be the very last resort to turn to.

Open the gates

Send the haters to hate somewhere else

So, coming back to my initial approach and example: Try to bring an open culture to the company. Make it a part of your companies DNA to accept failure and mistakes as trigger points for everyone to learn and grow. Support others to admit problems and failures and offer help and transparency. Do not accept the, rightfully hated, corporate bullshit and betrayal culture. When the employees are busy covering their behinds and setting up traps for others to trip on, only to distract from their own shortcomings, you have created a class A rotten company culture. People will only work there because of huge salaries, because it is a great thing to have a huge name on the cv, or something like that. But not for long. They will leave sooner than later. Why? Because of this culture. It nurtures stress, burn-outs, hate and makes people sick. We need to go to work because we need a purpose in life, we need company (what a great dual meaning for the word!). We cannot accept to spend too much, if any, part of the day in poisonous environments.

Shiny happy people = shiny company

Open the gates, the windows, and your communication to let the bad air out, and the sunshine in. As soon as things are open and people can freely communicate this will start a cleansing effect within the staff as well. Where open discussion and communication, fairness and freedom dominate the haters and tactics driven opportunists tend to leave as well. They simply cannot advance with their rotten tactics. And right after the dark forces leave your company it will shine and glow. I am confident about that. Just start doing the right thing.

I am looking forward to work with you and your wonderful colleagues!