Sharing, communicating, and persisting knowledge, information, and decisions is a challenge that most companies have. This challenge may become even bigger in remote-first companies.
- How do you make sure that everybody has the information they need?
- How do you ensure that people can understand, question, and object to decisions?
- How can you make sure that problems are surfaced as quickly as possible?
- And: How can you be confident that everybody gets the help they need; as fast as possible?
Default-to-Open is a principle and company value that can help you.
The meaning of “Default-to-open”
The meaning of this principle is, as the name suggests, that all communication and information, by default, is openly accessible. Open in this context might mean within the boundaries of your company.
Keeping as much information open as possible makes enables every member of the organization to follow conversations and decisions. It enables people to find information and knowledge when they need it. And it reduces the risk that things happen behind closed doors if there is no reason for it.
We all know how frustrating it is if we find a link to a document that potentially would answer our question if we had permission to view it. And this is only the tip of the iceberg, that “default-to-open” can melt.
Before I go more into the details of what “Default-to-open” can mean in practice, some words of warning: “Default-to-open” does not mean that everything is open at any cost.
It means, however, that everything should be open, if there is no reason to keep it private. Personal conversations might be confidential and should be treated as such. However, if it is unclear why and if something needs to be closed, it is better to ask.
How “Default-to-open” can look like
Default-to-open can have many faces in practice.
Here are some examples:
- Have as many Slack channels public, as possible: This allows people to see what is going on and join topics that are interesting to them.
- Have Slack conversations in channels rather than DMs: This is especially true for knowledge exchange and asking questions. Having such conversations in open channels allows you to pull other people into the topic. Furthermore, it enables others to find that conversation later, when they have a similar challenge or question.
- Have most pages in your company Wiki accessible for everybody: Self-explanatory — Your company benefits from information being broadly accessible. You never know who might need that information or can contribute to it.
- Announce meetings and allow people to participate, if they are intrigued by them: People might learn or can contribute when they join a meeting. Being open to guests in meetings allows you to cross-pollinate each other’s topics and facilitation styles. At BRYTER, we would announce incident reviews openly, so that everybody interested in the incident could join. When we had a knowledge-sharing session that might be interesting for others, we would announce it and allow others to participate.
- Record meetings, so that people can see what has happened: Just because a meeting is open doesn’t mean everybody can participate. You can make it even more open by recording it, or at least documenting the gist.
- Document outcomes and decisions in a place where everybody can see them: People need to know about decisions and understand the context in which the decision was made. This allows them to make decisions based on existing ones and also question decisions if the context changes. Having all this information openly available makes it possible for people to do so.
This list isn’t complete, but it is a great start.
Why “Default-to-open” matters — An example
It happens quickly, that you fall into closed-mode again. You have a quick question and know exactly which colleague might know the answer. Thus, you drop them a direct message.
This is bad because for at least four reasons.
First, nobody besides you and the colleague you are pinging can benefit from your exchange. Somebody might have a similar question but did not know who or how to ask. Or somebody might have the same question in a week. If you keep the conversation private, those people will not benefit from it.
Second, it might happen, that your colleague doesn’t know the answer. In that case, it is difficult to find the right person to ask next. And it is impossible for that person to proactively jump into the conversation.
Third, your colleague might be wrong. Again, nobody can jump into the conversation and clarify the matter.
Fourth, your colleague might be busy and not able to immediately respond. Now you need to wait until that colleague finds time. If you had asked openly, some other person might have been able to respond meanwhile.
You see, there are many reasons why this simple interaction can benefit from the default-to-open approach. Nonetheless, sometimes it happens that we fall into this pattern.
Hence, it is important to hold each other accountable.
Holding each other accountable
When you have established “Default-to-open” as a value in your company or your team, it is critical to follow this principle as much as possible.
This means, whenever you see that this principle could be followed in a better way, say so. If you are unclear, about why something isn’t open, ask.
Default-to-open does not mean that everything is open, always. But it means, if somebody keeps something closed, there should be a good reason for it. Usually, that reason can be shared to help people understand, why certain information is not open.
Positive side effect: This might spawn interesting discussions, about why certain topics are not open, and therefore push the organization towards a more open and transparent culture.
Default-to-open is a useful principle to follow. It enables better information exchange, mutual understanding, and support in organizations and teams. A lot of misunderstanding and even rumors can be avoided when you increase the amount of information that you make open.
How and to which extent are you following the Default-to-open principle in your organization? Let me know in the comments!