Researching Openness

I’ve been researching the concept of “openness” in organizations. I came across this concept when I watched this fireside chat with Mike Cannon-Brookes of Atlassian at Startup Battlefield Australia, released one week ago. I’ve been a fan of Atlassian products for years (our company uses both Bitbucket and Trello daily as important tools for our business operations).

Mr. Cannon-Brookes revealed that the concept of openness was the most important quality of his company culture, as they have grown to more than 2000 employees around the world. “Openness is root level for us. Information is open internally by default and sharing is a first principle.” The concept of openness as he described it fosters creativity, but may also create conflicts from time to time.

Intrigued by this, I searched for other Atlassian materials around this topic of openness. I found this Atlassian interview, in which, at the 11 minute mark, openness is described as the secret ingredient that the co-founders would take from Atlassian if they were ever going to start a new company. And Atlassian, I also enjoyed this video dedicated to openness that you published, well done.

So what does openness look like?

I spent some time searching around the web to understand this. I like this summary, and this summary, of tactics to create openness:

  • Encourage risk taking
  • Mistakes are viewed as learning opportunities
  • Transparency in processes and decision-making
  • Information is shared openly
  • Give up the corner office

You would laugh if you could see the little windowless cubby that I work out of at the office, and I’m pleased to say that these tactics seem like an ordinary day at most startups, who like us, don’t have the size or layers to keep secrets.

Hiring diversity has been described as a means to helping a business to understand their users and product from a variety of perspectives. We have discussed this topic previously in this article, and this article, and this article. When I look around the office at my beloved, the diversity is obvious. What’s not obvious is how we are learning from one another, or adapting our processes or product. Maybe the learnings and adaptations are more subtle than I realize?

As Mr. Cannon-Brookes points out, openness can also create debate and conflict, on levels that relate to a person’s own values. By way of example, Atlassian took a stand to support the same-sex marriage vote (that just successfully passed earlier this month in Australia), but as noted in this article, he acknowledged that taking that stand created inner conflict within his organization.

My insight here is that supporting individuals to share their possibly conflicting opinions, and promoting “openness” without providing structure, can lead to tricky-to-manage conflicts. From the Atlassian values statement: “And we understand that speaking your mind requires equal parts brains (what to say), thoughtfulness (when to say it), and caring (how it’s said).”

This is my first look at the topic of openness. My insight, so far, is that in a sometimes overwhelmingly busy day, putting aside the time to listen to your colleagues, team members and customers sometimes seems impossible. Embracing openness therefore requires structure, and I’ll want to spend more time thinking about how to create this structure for slowing down, looking around, and listening carefully.

Written by Rajah. Rajah Lehal is Founder and CEO of Rajah is a legal technologist and technology lawyer who is, together with the Clausehound team, capturing and sharing lawyer expertise, building deal negotiation libraries, teaching negotiation in classrooms, and automating negotiation with software.