Selfies, vulnerability and being bold: how to create an open culture (an interview with Jeni Tennison)

The Open Data Institute (ODI) is a pretty unique place. Not only does it have a fascinating crisp machine that spews out Walkers crisps when the economy is mentioned in the news (which, much to everyone’s delight, is often!), but it also has an admirable culture — the culture of being open.

Transparency is probably the most important thing at the ODI. We had daily standups, a ‘Say Box’ to express our thoughts and feelings in team meetings, flowing and frequent communication from CEO down to receptionists and an honest and open face to the outside world.

When I left the ODI to nomad around the world in 2017, I wanted to make sure I didn’t lose the value of ‘open’ — that I could somehow continue and emulate these values in future environments. So on my last day, I sat down with CEO Jeni Tennison to talk about the highs and lows of creating an open culture, and how to lead a transparent organisation.

Me: What does open culture mean to you?

JT: Being open ‘with’ and open ‘to’. So, being open with others about what you’re getting up to, talking publicly about your work, having the figures on the screens — basically communication with others. But the harder part, and a proper part of open culture, is being open to others. We as a society are getting better at open ‘with’, but the real struggle is being open to people. So, inviting others to comment on what you’re up to, and really listening to them. Actively inviting and engaging with a diverse set of opinions. I think that’s the struggle people have, as this means you’re open to criticism. It’s hard to change your opinion about things. And it’s not just about comments on the documents or the code, it’s about inviting people into where you are.

Me: Maintaining an open culture at the ODI hasn’t always been easy. What do you think is the hardest thing about maintaining an open culture?

JT: The hardest part within a team is that you don’t always know how people are going to react to that openness. Especially when you’re at the top of an organisation and you’re trying to create the best environment for people, and make sure they’re happy and fulfilled, if everybody knew every little thing that goes on they might be constantly distracted or worried. That’s the balance I find hard. It is your job to protect people, but if you’re always open all the time then you’re not always protecting them. Not knowing how to make those calls always is hard. I verge towards the more trusting and open, as I think people are adults and deserve to have all the information. So I sometimes have to be pulled back from that and think about the impact longer term. And being open to criticism is just hard. It’s hard to create something, and easy to criticise something. So the messages tend to be criticism.

It’s hard to project a confident, strong brand and leadership position whilst also being open about the bad things as well as the good things in the org. Being open is about being vulnerable.

Me: At the same time as we’re becoming more open, you could say that Western society seems to be becoming more individualist. There’s a huge focus on creating a personal brand, taking selfies, getting ahead of the competition and becoming self-made etc. Do you think that this increased inward focus could in any way compromise the aspiring goals of an open culture, which has such a focus on the collective?

JT: Interesting. I would cast some of the examples you used as being openness. Selfie taking is not just about being individualistic, it’s about trying to connect with other people. A lot of those things are about trying to connect rather than project. But I’m not someone who thinks that we will move towards openness because it’s a natural order — it’s something we work towards. Being open is something that enables you to situate yourself in the world and make friendships. I don’t think the two are necessarily in conflict from an individual angle. I think there’s a conflict between closed and open, but that’s different.

Me: So maybe people don’t see the value in open, because they can’t get passed the stage of vulnerability to reap the benefits that open can bring.

JT: Yeah. Openness brings massive benefits from an organisational perspective and individual perspective, but it is a vulnerable position to be in. You are vulnerable to hurt. But we have to think of the alternative — if we weren’t open at all with each other, and didn’t connect at all with each other. That’s a terrible situation to be in. Don’t let the difficulties stop you from being open, because the benefits far, far outweigh them.

Me: It seems like people will be kinder and more mindful with a more open mindset. You know what it feels like to be vulnerable, you’re aware that people might get hurt, and you’re mindful of not taking things personally.

JT: Yes, and taking criticism not as criticism of yourself, but as opportunity to get better. It’s someone trying to help you to learn and grow. I remember when I first started doing technical writing back in my career, my writing would come back with lots of comments and I just couldn’t look at it. I would cast it to one side — I would be in tears over it! It took me quite a long time, but I realised they were just trying to make it clearer for the readers, and it wasn’t meant as a personal attack at any stage. That’s the kind of attitude we need to bring, I think, to being open.

Me: What advice would you give to anyone else trying to create and maintain an open culture?

JT: 1. Equip yourself with the right systems and processes and practices — the things that make openness routine. Having Google docs makes it hugely easier for us to be open about the publications we write. Having screens and dashboards on the wall [to be transparent about project progress and yearly targets] makes it easier to be open. Getting these systems and processes right is essential to achieving an open culture.

2. Openness needs to be worked on all the time. Have you read Janet Hughes’ stuff about boldness? Or Claire Moriarty on inclusivity and confidence? [I hadn’t! *Adds to my ever-increasing reading list..] There’s something about bravery and confidence and vulnerability and how those all come together. Being bold and confident about being open.

3. Remember to be open ‘to’ as well as open ‘with’. I think that’s the harder bit, and it’s the bit that we overlook. It needs to start from the top and permeate everywhere. So if you are building an open culture, make sure that you yourself are open. Set the example.

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