Love, hate, and memo-list

Top management experts are now acknowledging the importance of creating forums and contexts inside corporations that allow peer review, transparency, and powerful natural hierarchies to flourish. Here’s one great post by Gary Hamel from earlier this year that Iain Gray pointed out today. We’ve had an open forum exactly like this at Red Hat for a very long time. We call it memo-list.


The Greek agora at Tyre. It used to be a popular gathering place back in the day.

When any new employee comes into Red Hat, memo-list is one of the first great shocks to the system. Memo-list itself is not some technological marvel of a collaboration tool– it is just a simple, old skool mailing list where any Red Hat employee can post an email message that goes out to virtually every employee in the company. That’s 3000+ folks.

Memo-list has been a hot issue inside the walls of Red Hat since before I joined ten years ago. Folks tend to either love it or hate it.

Some people are shocked by the fact that any employee can publicly challenge a post by an executive or even the CEO in an email to memo-list (and they do). Some people are annoyed by the discussions that appear over and over, year after year. Some people view it as idle chitchat and a waste of time.

But some people view it as the backbone of the Red Hat culture. A place where the power of meritocracy is nurtured. Where the employees force transparency, openness, and accountability. Where peer review makes for better ideas (after all, given enough eyes, all bugs are shallow).

I love memo-list, warts and all (I think Gary Hamel would like it too). In my view, it is the single most important thing that differentiates the Red Hat culture from most other corporate cultures.

Over the years, I’ve seen memo-list work its magic over and over. Sometimes it shines the light of transparency on a poor decision that the company has made and the decision is overturned. Sometimes a good idea is made better when the broad exposure creates an opportunity for other people to get involved.

Memo-list is like a virtual agora (sorry to go all Greek on you– I was an ancient history major in college) for the company, a gathering place where we can share ideas, experiences, announcements, successes, failures. In time of corporate crisis, it is a place people go for companionship and ideas (the idea for our Unfakeable Linux campaign was born on memo-list). I even remember the days after 9/11, when memo-list was the place where we were alerted that all of our worldwide employees were safe and accounted for.

Memo-list is a place where you run into friends you have not seen in a long, long time. Almost every week, there is a post from someone at Red Hat I really respect, but haven’t talked to personally in a while. My reaction is often something like “Hey, I’m glad to see they are still at Red Hat” and then “wow, I forgot how smart they are– what a great idea.”

Like any long-time Red Hat employee, I’ve done my fair share of griping about memo-list. After all, it’s bitten me too. There have been a number of times where I deserved to be bitten– I wasn’t being as transparent as the Red Hat culture demands, or I poorly explained an idea, or I didn’t show my math completely. There have also been times when I was the victim of memo-list trolls (yes, we have them, just like any mailing list does).

At it’s worst moments, memo-list is (to stay with the Greek theme) nothing but a Greek chorus. Some people view it as their role to provide commentary and judgment but not actually take part in fixing or building anything.

This really pisses me off. It attacks the heart of what makes memo-list such a powerful cultural phenomenon. Two of our four values at Red Hat are Freedom and Accountability, and these two values should always be in balance, even on the list. When people use their freedom to criticize others, but don’t take any accountability for coming up with a better way, it actually discourages people from being open with their ideas.

Are you considering creating something like memo-list at your company? Perhaps it would be a simple mailing list like ours, perhaps it would be a much more sophisticated collaboration tool or wiki-like creation.

These open forums can be powerful social and cultural tools for innovation when correctly set up and positioned. Design Thinking offers up some great principles that keep a company-wide discussion positive and constructive.

The most important principle is that there are no stupid ideas– all ideas are good (in his post, Gary Hamel says “All ideas compete on equal footing”). If your goal is to use an open forum to get the best ideas, you must generate a lot of ideas. And if you want to get a lot of ideas, people must feel safe to contribute without fear of harsh criticism. If people begin to fear criticism, they will self-edit. No more openness. And a lot less ideas.

The second principle is that when you feel the urge to criticize an idea (hey, we all do…), resist, and instead come up with a better idea and rally people around it. Keep the conversation positive, constructive, and stay focused on creating rather than judging.

Do you already have an open forum like memo-list at your organization? If so, I’d love to hear more about your experiences. Feel free to comment below or connect to me on Twitter.

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.


6 thoughts on “Love, hate, and memo-list

  1. Flamewar friday!

    Posted by Christopher Blizzard | October 29, 2009, 1:25 pm
  2. One of the things I miss most about Red Hat is memo-list. I absolutely loved it, flames and all. My cube mate and I even developed a little betting game based on Memo-list called “Spamgo.” I think I was up by about $5 by the time I quit.

    The true beauty of Memo-list occurred when a well-financed competitor launched a direct attack against us. Thanks to the chatter that immediately arose on Memo-list, I was able to pull tidbits from the discussions to formulate some quick positioning to respond to worried investors who were flooding the phone lines with questions.

    Posted by Linda Brewton | October 29, 2009, 2:24 pm


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