Can a culture of change improve innovation?

By Jim Whitehurst, president and chief executive officer, Red Hat

By Jim Whitehurst, president and chief executive officer, Red Hat

Plenty of executives lay awake at night wondering how they can keep up with the waves of digital disruption that continue to shake every industry out there. Everyone wants to know how they can get their organization to innovate better and faster.

But this is more than a technology problem. Businesses can’t simply buy a solution off the shelf. Instead, leaders need to encourage people to think and act differently. And to do that, they need to rethink the way they organize to get work done.

Rebooting the organization

The hierarchies and bureaucracies that are so common today were well-engineered solutions to the challenges of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It was all about defining a competitively advantaged strategic position, dictating a plan and then efficiently executing that plan by coordinating activities and driving compliance.

That plan/prescribe/execute system of the past worked well in a static environment where change occurred slowly and predictably.

But the pace of digital transformation today has made Industrial Era thinking and planning obsolete when it comes to overcoming the challenges an organization faces.

Don’t mistake this shift in how we work for mere automation. Automation changed how we get work done, whereas digital transformation forces us to rethink how we actually organize to decide, distribute and coordinate the work. Automation requires processes to change; digital transformation requires people to change.

We’re talking about building an organizational culture that embraces innovative thinking and behaviors. But you can’t change culture overnight, because it’s an output, not an input.

For most businesses, attributes like consistency, reliability, conformity and the ability to minimize losses are highly valued. Those are admirable traits and valuable for efficient execution but don’t lead to experimentation, idea generation and other innovation-driving activities.

If you want your culture to change, you need to reconfigure how you and your people work together in radically new ways. You must change the way you enable and empower people so they can effectively operate in this new environment. And you can look to open source communities—and the technologies they create—as guides.

A culture of constant change

What we’ve learned at Red Hat is that the ability to change is something you need to build into your organization from the bottom up using an open source approach. It’s about empowering and enabling people inside the organization to ask questions that lead to ideas worth exploring—without sacrificing speed, performance or resiliency.

Red Hat customers apply these principles every day. Watch the full keynote to learn from their stories.

We’ve found that when it comes to rethinking how we organize to get work done, it’s important to focus on three primary pillars that have been foundational in open source communities for years:

1. Planning must be replaced by configuring for constant change: Long-term planning is becoming impossible because things change so fast and so often. Organizations today need to spend less time charting long-term courses and more time fostering teams configured to respond effectively to constant change.

2. Prescription must be replaced by enablement: Rigidly prescribing behaviors in organizations is no longer possible nor desirable. Organizations today should instead be thinking of ways they can enable creative activities from innovative and responsive teams.

3. Execution must be replaced by engagement: Operations focused on coordinating large groups of people cannot generate cultures of innovation as quickly as those focused on encouraging collaboration—both within an organization’s walls and outside it—with unforeseen partners and communities.

The cultural outputs of an open source approach—transparency, collaboration and agility—occur naturally when leaders enable people with the right infrastructure. Open technology built on open source principles allows businesses to change without necessarily knowing what the change will be. It’s the difference between setting up a hybrid cloud and giving people an open hybrid cloud. That small distinction helps address any problem with the right solution, regardless of what footprint it exists in or which vendor offers it. Adding “open” builds the capability to  change an organization from the bottom-up.

That’s because open technology is more than open source code. It helps companies embrace a cultural shift that opens up possibilities without sacrificing speed, performance or resiliency. It’s a foundation that allows anyone to connect and contribute wherever and however they need—providing smart people with a flexible infrastructure that lets the best ideas win.

And when the best ideas win, you can’t lose.


Every positive culture change begins with open dialogue. Ask me your #opensource questions by tweeting @JWhitehurst.