culture, dark matter

Red Hat culture tip: default to open

After 10 years at Red Hat, I’ll admit I am a little bit out of touch with what the corporate world looks like everywhere else. But after a recent conversation with someone out there in the non-Red Hat universe, I thought I’d pass on a quick tip they found helpful on how to create a more collaborative culture in your organization.

Tom Petty sez you should go "into the great wide open..."

Tom Petty sez you should go "into the great wide open..."

The tip is simple. Default to open. Everywhere.

What does this mean? It means rather than starting from a point where you choose what to share, you start from a point where you chose what not to share.

You begin sharing by default.

A quick example. Our group was lucky enough to (thanks to our talented global facilities director, Craig Youst) have the opportunity to help design our own office space. As part of the space design, we determined that we wanted no offices– everyone would be in a large, open collaborative space.

Everyone had the same sized cubes, and it didn’t matter how much of a muckety-muck you were or weren’t. If you wanted to have a private conversation, the space design included a series of private alcoves, where you could go talk with your doctor, or yell at your wife, or whatever you didn’t want to do in public. But the key is that you had to actively decide when placing a call, do I want to take this in private? Which is counter than the old-skool office design where you had an office with a door, and all conversations were private by default.

We also ensured there was a big public space adjacent to the cubes with no door (i.e. not a “meeting room”) so that when brainstorming sessions were happening, the people sitting nearby could participate however they wanted. In some cases, this meant the folks near the meeting would put their headphones on and ignore what was happening. But in other cases they passively listened, with perhaps a nugget of a new idea or two seeping into their heads every few minutes. And sometimes they actively engaged in the conversation from their desks, calling out a few ideas that helped the team.

After working in this world for a few years now, I can’t honestly imagine how we survived before defaulting to open. The biggest benefit is that you actually know what is going on around you. You overhear conversations. You pass on a tidbit of useful advice over the cube wall. You can see who is actually in the office.

Sure, there is a downside. Sometimes information or opinions that would be better off closed are accidentally aired publicly. Sometimes it’s a bit noisy. But that’s why God invented the “quiet voice,” good music, and headphones.

I’ve found the benefits of forcing yourself to ask “should I have this conversation in private?” rather than simply having it in private by default are enormous. Collaboration. Transparency. Openness. All that stuff Barack Obama keeps talking about.

Our office is only one example. After all, we have over 50 offices spread around the world, so openness must transcend physical space.

We’ve applied the “default to open” principle everywhere we can at Red Hat. We try to show transparency in decision-making. See my post about how we created the Red Hat Mission for one good example. We make brainstorming on important topics a company-wide volunteer opportunity– all good ideas welcome. The concept of default to open is deeply woven in the cultural DNA of the company and applied liberally.

Of course, as a publicly-traded company abiding by financial regulations and as a business with many hungry competitors, we can’t be open about everything. But I believe we take a step in the right direction each time we force ourselves to ask “which things should we close?” instead of “which things should we open?”

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About Chris Grams

Chris Grams is Head of Marketing at Tidelift. He is also the author of The Ad-Free Brand: Secrets to Successful Brand Positioning in a Digital World.


7 thoughts on “Red Hat culture tip: default to open

  1. You’ll have to pardon my annoyance on this one, but you just described the ENTIRE Red Hat headquarters before you moved into your current building (Meridian Parkway). Lisa, Marc, Manoj, and myself designed that space just about exactly as you describe. Bob and Matthew both had cubes just like everyone else. Heck, Matthew even moved his cube around somewhat randomly every few months to be “inside” different groups of the company.

    It worked great, too, until the much cheaper (and supposedly sexier) building became available where you are now that was already carved up into a bajillion crazy offices with very little place to do something like you’ve got now.

    I’d say almost every person who had an office at our previous spot on TW Alexander absolutely HATED going to a cube at the new spot when we first did it. I also heard from almost every person most vocal against it later that they thought it was the greatest single thing we ever changed in our company. I actually think Lisa and Marc take most of the credit for the idea, too. Manoj didn’t care as long as we could get our furniture cheap and I was quickly convinced of the merits. But even then I think they stole the idea from somewhere else. :-)

    But your point is right on. Default to open. It’s a mindset that you have to beat into people in some ways, but it is worth the pain.

    Posted by Donnie Barnes | July 16, 2009, 9:53 pm
    • Hi Donnie! You are entirely correct, we designed our space in our current building by copying the design of our old space, alcoves and all (which was probably inspired by the way open source mailing lists worked, default to sending thoughts to everyone, rather than just sending emails to a single person). I agree, moving into the Meridian office changed the company from a collaboration POV. At the time, I’m not sure if you realized what an impact this design would have, but in my mind it was one of the defining elements that created the Red Hat culture that still exists today.

      It’s funny… I always hesitate to write posts like this, because for those close to open source this default to open concept is totally obvious. But as I mentioned, it’s become clear to me that it is not obvious to everyone…

      For others reading this blog, Donnie Barnes, who made this comment, was one of the first five Red Hat employees. And also one heck of a smart dude…

      Posted by cdgrams | July 16, 2009, 10:22 pm
  2. Bah, I don’t know about the smart dude thing, but I’ve been lucky to surround myself with smart people.

    I sure didn’t realize the impact it would have, but I knew leaving it wouldn’t be a step in the right direction. I was quite sad to hear that the move was happening, but it is great to hear that the idea is coming back and proving just as successful as it was!

    One day I’ll be smart, but only because I read blogs like yours. :-)

    Posted by Donnie Barnes | July 16, 2009, 10:25 pm
  3. Why don’t you guys get a room?

    Posted by Burney | July 23, 2009, 11:43 pm


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