Openness is the new constraint

We live in a closed world. Even though they deal with tax payers money, government contracts are shielded by ‘commercial confidentiality’, we only get to hear about MPs expenses when they are leaked to a newspaper, Apple won’t let applications it doesn’t fancy onto its iPhone or iPad, scientists and commentators like Simon Singh are slapped with libel writs if they seek to question or probe and the proprietary systems’ ‘security by obscurity’ (if you hide the code then people can’t find ways to break in) is seen as a valid security model by many major companies.

The reason that these situations persist is that people know that openness is harder than being closed so they fight against it. If government contracts were open then there would be more criticism. Open source code brings more attacks initially, but then faster fixes. Transparency is difficult. It is uncomfortable to have everyone looking at you.

In the old paradigm of command and control the constraints would be set by management and the workers expected to comply. In fact, compliance was the key to showing you were doing a good job. In the new way, autonomy is granted to staff to do the job as and when they see fit and so the closed thinking about methods is removed. But it is replaced with openness.

Take the example of MPs expenses in the UK. It was a closed system. MPs submitted their claims to the Fees Office and the office approved or disapproved them. Only when the claims were leaked did the British public learn that MPs were often claiming for spurious and outlandish items, flipping houses and generally not playing fair. To compound it, in many cases they did it with the approval of the Fees Office who advised some of the worst offenders what they could get away with. Under the bright glare of the public gaze these claims inside the constraints of the rules were seen as ridiculous and sometimes fraudulent.

Openness is more of a constraint.

If the MPs’ expenses were published on the internet for all to see you wouldn’t need a Fees Office. The openness to public scrutiny would be enough. You can remove the rules and replace it with freedom of action coupled with freedom of information. Claim what you want, but everyone is going to know about it.

This principle can be carried over to the commercial companies and the public services. The closed system where managers mandate work and staff do it and are monitored to see they do it as the managers tell them to is no longer tenable.

I was asked today, how do we govern staff if we give them autonomy? The fact is you don’t. You don’t argue that you have the bigger picture and so you need to design work. Instead you take that wider view and bring staff along by communicating that view to them so you can together figure out how to solve the problems, improve the work and deliver the value together. The need to command and control isn’t abandoned, it simply dissolves away.

We must move away from the closed view of “I know and you do.” and toward, “We talk so together we can improve.”



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