By Kevin O'Brien
I was fortunate early in my career to spend seven years working for a very progressive company named W.L. Gore & Associates. Gore is most famous for creating GORE-TEX fabric but is perhaps less known for its unique lattice structure. Since its founding in 1958, Gore has used the lattice as a tool to enhance innovation.
The stated focus of this privately held firm is to create a continuous stream of innovative products based on fluoropolymer materials. As a former associate, I can attest that the lattice clearly helps this process. When an associate (Gore's term for an employee) comes up with an idea for a new product, they are encouraged to shop it around to see if it gains traction with other associates. The lattice is excellent at the letting the enterprise decide which ideas ultimately get pursued.
Since setting up my consulting practice, I've found that this is not the case in most organizations. If fact, most organizations aren't set up to aggregate and leverage collective intelligence. This is a shame, because the times we live in clearly call for innovative solutions to problems we face.
This has led me to believe that if we want to innovate, we need to be comfortable allowing the organization to use its collective intelligence in making decisions. How do we do this? One method I've come across that tends work very well is called Open Space Technology, or OST for short. It's a convening process that invites individuals and collective leadership to an event to deeply connect and achieve high performance at work and in their lives.
What really excites me is that with OST you get to experience what it's like to work at Gore. You have freedom to learn and contribute any way you like. The only limit you have is the one you place on yourself. You do need others to support you, but that is how it works in the real world anyway.
Inside Gore, fellow associates are a community of investors. They are free to invest their time in things that are of interest to them that also have business value. If your project is in need of money to buy materials or equipment, you can purchase whatever you like as long as you are not risking the financial health or reputation of the enterprise. If you do desire to take large risks, you will need to involve other people, as Gore believes that all associates are in the same boat. You don't want to be the one that sinks the ship.
At some point in the process of promoting your idea, you may look to get leadership buy-in. Leaders, who always have a broad network of connections, can help you sell your idea. You might be saying to yourself, "This sounds like a hierarchy." It is, sort of. At Gore, instead of bosses, leaders are people you want to follow. In a normal organization the boss is appointed from above. And you pretty much have to do what the boss wants. At Gore leaders are chosen with help of associates, and there is no requirement that you follow a so-called leader. The leader needs to earn and keep your followership. At an Open Space event you also have the opportunity to earn followership and receive input and get candid feedback on the relative value of ideas. In fact, followers can quickly become the team that contributes and executes a project.
Open Space Technology uses something called the "law of two feet." If you are not learning or contributing something in a discussion, you are free (in fact, you are strongly urged) to use your two feet and go somewhere else where you can be more useful. This simple practice is also a law at all meetings in Gore. You're responsible for where you invest your time. The organization expects you to make a contribution, but not on something that doesn't make sense or energize you.
To open the space for innovation in your organization, you'll need to adopt three practices. The first is to open dialogue around new ideas. People need to feel free to bring their own ideas to the table. Let people call their own meetings and invite people to use the law of two feet. The second and somewhat harder practice is that of open commitment. Let people decide what projects they want to contribute to. Make clear that once a commitment is made, the expectation is that it will be fulfilled, but also that individuals are accountable for being energized by their commitments. The third and most difficult practice for a traditional organization is open contribution ranking. Let teams evaluate the relative contribution of their leaders and their peers. Make it a goal that the ones who are contributing the most to the enterprise are the ones being compensated the most.
In an environment where command and control is the dominant paradigm, adopting the practices described above is not for the faint of heart. But is necessary if your organization wants to obtain the benefits of innovation and collective intelligence. I recommend you start with small experiments. These small steps over time, coupled with owning the desire for effective new ways of doing work, will enable your organization to evolve and, just possibly, transform.
Kevin O'Brien is an organizational advisor, open-space facilitator, and certified scrum master. A chemical engineer by training, he worked for seven years at W.L. Gore & Associates. Kevin is also a champion for Great Work Cultures, a movement dedicated to unleashing the power within every human organization. He currently resides in the city of Philadelphia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.