When I first read Reinventing Organizations, Frédéric Laloux’s excellent study of open culture organisations around the world, I remember being moved and puzzled by the tale of AES. AES was (still is, I think) a publicly listed energy company that pioneered many of the concepts of open culture in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. Then something went wrong: Enron. The stock market slid, and AES’s shareholders demanded that AES go back to more traditional management practices to fix this (even though it was obvious that AES’s stock decrease was environmental – the whole energy market was collapsing because of Enron’s speculation and (ahem) hard-edged “traditional management” practices).
Then I read Joy At Work, which was written by Dennis Bakke, one of the founders of AES and the main source of the pioneering culture work at AES. It’s a truly excellent book filled with useful ideas that we’ve applied at GrantTree, not the least of which is the definition of Advice Process which we use to make all decisions. And it is also a very bitter book.
Building open cultures is very hard work. It digs deep inside of us. It changes us. Like the Southern Oracle’s second, mirrored gate, it requires us to face all sorts of internal insecurities that we would normally ignore – things deeply specific to us and which are often very uncomfortable to deal with. Most people go their whole life without really facing themselves. Those who would create open culture organisations spend most of their time doing it, a rewarding but difficult habit.
If it is uncomfortable to face our shadows, it is doubly so to encourage others to face their own. It’s dangerous work too. Human change often requires dissolving what was there to build it anew, but when people are undergoing the first part of change, the dissolution, it feels like things they could once rely on are no longer there. They are afraid. They sometimes blame us for “making” them go through this. When you care deeply about every relationship (and to build an open culture, you must care), it is incredibly hard to go through this process with others too, always facing the risk that one of those people will refuse to change, blame you for it, and so attack you as the source of their suffering.
Part of what sustains me (and, I guess, other open culture advocates) while dealing with all this is the fundamental belief that what I’m doing is making a positive, lasting difference to those it touches, the belief that this way of working is truly better for all who experience it and that we all benefit from it.
I can only imagine what it must be like to spend decades building such a culture, only to have it wrenched from you, changed and corrupted back into a closed, hierarchical culture. The word “gutting” comes to mind. I am certainly not surprised that Dennis Bakke is bitter. It’s hard to see your life’s work defiled in this way.
Cofounder CEO Chris Wanstrath, with support from the board, is radically changing the company’s culture: Out with flat org structure based purely on meritocracy, in with supervisors and middle managers. This has ticked off many people in the old guard.
Its once famous remote-employee culture has been rolled back. Senior managers are no longer allowed to live afar and must report to the office. This was one reason why some senior execs departed or were asked to leave, one person close to the company told us.
Some longer-term employees feel like there’s a “culture of fear” where people who don’t support all the changes are being ousted.
These are all very clear signs of an open culture that’s being ripped to shreds. It’s tragic.
It’s also terribly ironic to see the old bullshit excuse that “well, it just doesn’t work at this scale” being deployed:
“There was a remote culture and very little hierarchical structure which worked wonderfully when they were 30 and 50 people, but at 500, it doesn’t work. Chris has decided that the leadership team needs to be in the building and managing, so remote is not an option for senior executives.”
AES had 40’000 employees all around the world and yet was successfully open. MorningStarCo has many hundreds. Valve (assuming it’s still open) has thousands. Semco – who knows, it’s now fragmented into a bunch of open culture companies and likely numbers in the thousands too. Yes, growth is hard. Things change when you grow. But transparency, trust, power and freedom don’t have to be among them.
Tom Preston-Werner’s dream
When did this start? When did the dream start dying? Who knows. But I have a hunch that it started before Tom Preston-Werner was ousted from the company, a couple of years ago, in a case of sexual harassment that was later dismissed as groundless. This smacks me of political play, a scenario very similar to what played out at AES, where an unrelated incident is used by those who don’t yet understand or trust open culture to weaken, attack or destroy it. GitHub was an open culture at the time. What did Tom do there? Why was it important to get him out?
Frédéric Laloux addresses the role of the “leader” in an open (also known as Teal), non-hierarchical organisation:
You might have noticed a major paradox: CEOs are both much less and much more important in self-managing organizations compared to traditional ones. They have given up their top-down hierarchical power. The lines of the pyramid no longer converge towards them. They can no longer make or overturn any decision. And yet, in a time when people still think about organizations in Amber, Orange and Green ways, the CEO has an absolutely critical role in creating and holding a Teal organizational space. But beyond creating and holding that space, paradoxically, there is not much a CEO needs to do; he can let the self-organizing, emerging nature of Evolutionary-Teal take over.
Teal operating principles run deeply against the grain of accepted management thinking, and so a critical role of the founder/CEO is to hold the space for Teal structures and practices. Whenever a problem comes up, someone, somewhere, will call for tried-and-proven solutions: let’s add a rule, a control system; let’s put the issue under some centralized function; let’s add a layer of supervision; let’s make processes more prescriptive; let’s make such decisions at a higher level in the future. The calls can come from different corners – one time it’s a board member who will call for more control, another time a colleague, a supplier or a client. Over and over again, the CEO must ensure that trust prevails and that traditional management practices don’t creep in through the back door.
And so it was with GitHub. Unfortunately, it is through the effect of his absence that we now know for sure that Tom was the leader who was “holding the space” at GitHub. In a way, I guess Tom was outmanoeuvred by someone who thought they knew better what GitHub’s culture should be. Whoever this someone is (probably not Chris Wanstrath), they took advantage of the situation and cleared the space for more “reasonable”, “grown-up” management to be put in. And so GitHub’s once open, innovating, amazing, world-leading culture is being replaced to create another workplace just like every other closed workplace.
Rather than analyse the causes of all this (I don’t know enough to do so anyway), I’d like to conclude the article by thanking Tom Preston-Werner. While it was open, GitHub was an inspiration that I (and no doubt many others) drew from to help open up the culture of our own companies. I have no idea what Tom is planning to do next – he’s still very young, I’m hopeful! – but I hope that he will be able to move past this failure, as tragic as it might be, and build another, even more amazing open culture company.
Thank you Tom. Best of luck with the next venture!
PS: Oh, by the way, if you’re a developer at GitHub, and you’d like to continue working remotely for an open culture company, we’ve been trying to hire a Python developer for a while. The old job ad is here. Get in touch if you’re interested!