Sustaining and Scaling Openness

I was never a fan of the band Queen but I remember being moved to see the video to their song, The Show Must Go On, released at a time when their lead singer Freddie Mercury was in advanced stages of dying with Aids. Where others may have faded away quietly, the sheer necessity and inevitability of the need to keep on performing was striking.

Whatever you think of their music I think you have to admire their tenacity. And people say that life’s a stage, and it certainly was for flambouant performers like Freddie, in that we all put on a front a lot of the time – it’s how we survive and navigate the world. But I prefer to engage with people when that front disappears, either by accident or by design and we show our true intentions.

In that spirit I want to share that last year has been the most difficult of my professional life and that of some of my colleagues. In many ways we’ve gone from strength to strength and achieved a lot as a business and I’ve observed other people’s perceptions of what we are doing as quite contradictory to how it feels from the inside. But I’ve realised that we chronically compare our insides with other people’s outsides and actually there is much we can be proud of. Having said that by the time the Christmas break finally came along, not only was I exhausted, but I was left wondering what we are trying to achieve and what our role is anymore, which makes me a bit sad.

At the same time, just before the break I lost a relatively distant member of my family prematurely this year also – somebody who lived far away and who I barely knew to be honest, but their passing has affected me deeply. Unlike Freddie she faded away quietly and now left the family a bit confused as to how it happened, and I’m not sure we’ll ever know.

Having had a bit of time to recharge over the break and reflect on what’s important I feel more than ever that I want to make a difference. I want to help others. I want to learn. I want to love. That’s pretty much all that matters – is that really too much to ask?

You may dismiss these as first world problems. In many ways they are but they are also fundamental to life. Through our work we have the absolute privaledge of working with some amazing people and organisations, who in different ways need help to change or evolve or grow. These things are always difficult and seldom are the challenges obvious at the outset.

When we started 100%Open nearly 5 years ago we tried hard to create a mission driven organisation with a vision for a better future. That includes more openness, transparency, generosity, sharing as a way to affect positive change in the world. Wherever possible we try to be generous, because it is always repaid somehow.

We’ve refined our vision that we don’t necessarily advocate being 100%Open about all things to all people at all times (in fact that was never the vision). Rather there is an ever increasing trend towards transparency and openness thrust upon us all by the connectivity that the internet allows, and those who embrace it proactively rather than reactively are more likely to benefit.

However, as we’ve grown we’ve taken quite a few gambles this year and not all of them have paid off. We’ve made some choices out of sheer pragmatism rather than conviction. We have created teams, projects, products and services that we are very proud of, but we have also been down numerous blind alleys, which has put a lot of pressure on us all.

And there have been times when perhaps we’ve been too generous. Naive even. Given people, including ourselves, the benefit of the doubt too many times. It’s never been a problem before but this year, as we grew and in many ways went from strength to strength, it became a problem – both emotionally and financially.

But where do we go from here? Do we retreat to a safer way of working. Stop being generous. Focus on the core etc. I don’t think we could do any of those things even if we wanted to. I don’t believe that’s in our DNA and not the kind of organisation I’d like to be part of.

Yes there are certain things we need to get better at, or more likely, hire some great people to help us get better at. But if anything I want to take bigger and bolder steps, be more generous, and grow new ventures.

But as the african proverb says, if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far go together. This is the challenge – it’s been tempting for me more than once this year to get away from the trappings of running a business and pursue my own hopes and dreams in a way where I don’t have to carry quite so much responsibility and where it’s a lot easier to make decisions, because the only person to argue with would be myself. But I know that wouldn’t sustain me for very long. I’d miss the creative conflict. I know my ability to make a difference would be so much less.

So how do we sustain or even scale what we do without diluting it’s impact. In fact I want the impact to grow. I’ve read that when you double the size of an organisation, you halve the productivity per person, whereas in cities, when you double their size, you double the productivity per person. There is something about the unplanned, improvised, organic nature of cities which mean they are so much more effective than the rigid structures we keep creating.

So in 2015, the show goes on, and I want to keep on improvising more than ever and growing organically. Being ruthlessly open and honest with ourselves and the people we work with, and believe that we can scale the openness that we advocate. Above all we must resist the temptations of repeating the mistakes of the past (both our own, and other peoples) and, as Ester Dyson says, continue to strive to make new mistakes.

by Roland

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