How to avoid organizational indigestion through open leadership

Your team may cook up a seemingly endless buffet of great ideas. But attempt to entertain and accomplish them all, and you'll feel uncomfortably overstuffed
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"This organization won't die of starvation. But it could die of indigestion."

I'll never forget that statement. I heard it when I was just beginning my time as CIO of Red Hat. I'd just joined the company after leaving a much larger organization, and I was ready to adjust my traditional leadership playbooks and experiment in my new environment – to embrace the collaborative, inclusive, and meritocratic spirit of an open organization.

[ Does your team admire your emotional intelligence? Read 10 things leaders with emotional intelligence never do. ]

I really did feel like anything was possible. And it was. But I quickly learned that when anything is possible, nothing can happen. It remains yet another important lesson in open leadership I’ve learned since joining Red Hat.

An overabundance of good ideas

Open organizations like Red Hat are perpetually brimming with ideas. Their emphasis on transparent communication, their preference for collaboration, and their insistence on working collaboratively across boundaries mean that opinions, perspectives, and innovative angles on tricky problems are never in short supply. They're never starved for good ideas.

But sometimes, an overabundance of good ideas can be almost as debilitating as no ideas at all. When great ideas can come from anywhere – that is, when they needn’t just cascade down a hierarchy or emanate from bureaucracy, and when people don't feel reluctant to offer their feedback on any issue facing the organization (whether it be a business problem or the flavor of seltzer water currently stocked in the fridge) – you'll often find yourself facing a buffet of potential solutions. Each one might be viable. Each one might be beneficial in some way. Each one might be downright great. Yet each one represents a potential pathway forward, and each of those pathways demands its own priorities and resources – which might not be compatible with the other pathways available to you.

Even if they don’t sit well together, great ideas remain great ideas. Attempt to entertain and accomplish them all, however, and you'll feel quite the opposite of starvation. You're going to feel uncomfortably overstuffed.

The conviction to set boundaries

I learned this quickly at Red Hat. One of my first tasks as incoming CIO was to ensure we had a charter for the IT organization, a stated purpose, and a set of operating principles that would guide our work. I was keen to demonstrate that I understood the organization's open culture, so I undertook the task in a transparent and collaborative way. I interviewed various stakeholders. I collected feedback from associates in various positions. In consultation with others, we drew up a working document and made it available internally for comment and critique. In short, I did everything I could to lead the exercise like a true open source process.

Open leaders need to combine their inclusive and collaborative spirit with the conviction necessary for setting boundaries.

And you can bet that I received feedback. I received lots of feedback. I heard so many compelling perspectives of the role IT should play in an open organization – what it should strive to do to empower people to leverage technology to achieve their goals (and to discover new ones). I could have listened forever. We could have iterated on the charter forever. But trying to assimilate everything would have given us organizational indigestion: We'd be so full of amazing ideas that our most appealing option would be to lie on the couch and wait until they all settled.

So I set one rule: After 60 days, we were going to release the document and make sure everyone knew it was our document. It might be a minimum viable product, the first iteration of what might change over time. But we were going to make the tough decisions about what to include and exclude and distinctly define our team's identity as a result.

This is the part of open leadership that some people tend to overlook. Being accepting of feedback, being open to ideas and influences from everywhere is essential to open leadership – but it's only half the picture. Open leaders need to combine their inclusive and collaborative spirit with the conviction necessary for setting boundaries. All leaders need to do this, of course, but open leaders invest the extra effort into making those boundaries clear and obvious, to explain the context for those boundaries.

But they do set them. Because the alternative is a belly full of way too much – organizational indigestion. And it's uncomfortable for everyone.

[ Editor's note: This article originally appeared on LinkedIn. ]

[ Want to learn more about organizing teams? Get the free eBook, Organize for Innovation, by Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst. ]

As Chief Information Officer, Mike Kelly is responsible for leading the information technology organization at Red Hat Inc., the world’s leading provider of open source solutions. Since joining the organization in 2016, Kelly has focused on leading the IT team as they provide the tools and technologies that enable Red Hatters every day.


Excellent article with a perspective worth noting. Mike talks about the need to set boundaries. In an open organization, boundaries are permeable. In the situations Mike addresses, the boundaries allow ideas to flow in and out. And, they allow for focus, decision clarity, and action. In organizations that are not open, boundaries become barriers, which restrict the flow of ideas and collaboration.