Do open orgs have a speed competitive advantage?

I’ve taken the liberty of spinning this out from @ronmcfarl’s thread to keep the thread focused.

Ron said:

I’ve talked on “speed” as a competitive advantage. Do open organizations have that advantage?

That’s a really interesting question! I’d argue that they don’t. Open organizations require more time for ideas to be debated, refined, and accepted before they can be implemented. It’s much faster for a decision to be made by a single person or small group and imposed on the organization.

Of course, faster doesn’t necessarily mean better. And speed isn’t always that beneficial on its own. You can ask Microsoft about how much a seven-year head start helped Windows Mobile against the iPhone. Or how MySpace used it’s advantage to crush Facebook. Timing, more than speed, is what’s important.

But speed isn’t just time-to-market, it can also be time-to-react-to-changes. As I said in my reactive vs resilient article, sometimes not reacting is the best reaction, and the slower, more deliberative process of an open organziation becomes a benefit here.

So I’d make the case that open orgs are slower, but the payoff is better decisions.

How can open orgs mitigate that slowness?

  • Doing some work in parallel to building consensus, in the hope that the consensus is relatively close to the work you’ve done. Indeed, sometimes you have to do some work so that there’s something to build consensus around.
  • Agree to delegate some decisions to the relevant experts without needing full organizational buy in. We’ve talked about this before: the difference between having a voice and having a vote. And sometimes it’s okay to not give everyone a voice. For example, the Fedora Council has adopted a position that for some decisions, we rely on the associated person or group to make the right decision without first seeking Council input. They inform the Council after the fact, and the Council can step in and overrule them, but generally we say “make routine decisions as easy as possible”.
  • Probably other things?

Thanks for prompting this brain dump, Ron. I’d love to hear other takes on this question.

Nice thoughts, @bcotton. And thanks, @ronmcfarl, for getting this started.

Addressing the “speed issue” in talks or workshops, I’ve realized some success distinguishing between speed of development and speed of execution. When people start to hear about all ways open organizations work to make decisions as inclusively and collaboratively as possible, I can see them start to fret: How in the world can I work like this and get anything done?

I think what @bcotton says is true: Open organizations really don’t make decisions much more quickly than conventional ones. In most cases, that’s by design. (And @ruhbehka might argue that it’s not a question of “an open organization making a decision” but rather of an “organization making an open decision”—subtle difference but perhaps critical here, since open organizations don’t always make open decisions!). Yet when an open group, team, or organization does arrive at a decision, we’ve seen that it’s capable of acting on or executing that decision incredibly quickly, because it’s already achieved stakeholder buy-in, established thorough context across organizational boundaries, and so on.

So the question I like to pose is: In what capacity do you require “speed”?

This reminds me, too, of Jim’s early column on the subject, “Understanding the limits of hierarchies”:

Top-down organizations can certainly excel at achieving efficiency—and if efficiency is your ultimate goal, then constructing a hierarchy is a valid way to go. Quite often, a command-and-control-style structure can produce the most accurate version of your vision, and quickly. But don’t expect anything a hierarchy does to pleasantly surprise you. Don’t expect it to respond well to forces or events outside of your control. Don’t expect it to flourish without your meticulous oversight. In short, don’t expect it to be agile. That’s because agility requires an organizational capability to respond and react that top-down, proscribed systems simply cannot achieve. It requires an organization in which every “box” has the latitude and responsibility to react and adjust to a changing environment. That’s not something central planning can accomplish. If that sounds messy and chaotic to you, then you’re right. But the long term results will surprise you in many positive ways.

1 Like

I’m not sure if Open Organizations can use “speed” as a competitive advantage. Looking at the five Open Organization principles, (transparency, inclusivity, adaptability, collaboration, community), I would guess if these were performed faster they would be more competitive. I still have to do more homework on this. Assembling and interacting with the right talent you need for a project quickly could make you competitive. Your thought on “having a vote” and “having a voice” on a project is an important one and that decision must be made very carefully.

1 Like

Sorry I’m late to the party… been around the world and back for 3 weeks. The research we did at LDR21 (with Dr. MaryJo Burchard) on how people initially respond to change in part speaks to speed of decision making and execution. When teams are balanced on the change response strength, and an individual understands how they engage with change then, openness becomes an advantage. People we perceive as “slow” because of asking detailed questions aren’t always slow to act or adopt – they simply need information before moving. And each of the 9 key profiles we identified, have a key purpose in helping the “whole” move forward with balance, speed and sustainability.

MaryJo and I no longer work together. I can share the research concepts but if you’d like to dig deep into her research then you’ll need to contact her directly. You’ll find she has a profile on