The Importance Of Being Earnest (And Open)

Wednesday, May 1, 2013
by Kent AitkenRSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

For many readers, my last post on collaboration [see: Collaboration: Overhyped and Underappreciated] may have seemed about five years late. But the evolving understanding of collaboration is still huge for government leaders and industry executives.

And so, even in recognizing that I'm preaching to the choir, I have a little more exploring to do. I wrote this:

I think the most amazing thing about effective collaborative platforms is often not the mechanism for collaboration, but rather the mechanism for finding others who are interested in the same thing. It's easier to get past our natural incredulity: “I can't imagine how I can contribute to X,” or, “I can't imagine who'd be interested in Y.”
I want to expand on the value of finding others with similar interests - and part of it is leaving rough edges of your life, for others to latch on to.

Small Talk

Here's the simplest example. You get asked this question near daily: “What have you been up to?” And, broadly speaking, there are two possible answers: “Not much,” or “Something.”

“Not much.” It's almost certainly untrue, but it's easy and doesn't impose any social duty to investigate on your listener. It's also boring and unlikely to lead to more interesting conversation.

On the other hand, “I've been really busy volunteering with a conference” or “I spent the weekend rock climbing” leave rough edges for others to latch onto, to identify commonalities, and to create conversations around. It's the cocktail party game: we engage in small talk in an effort to hit something really worth talking about. It's not much fun spending a few hours learning what every attendee thinks of the last few days of weather.

Professional Rough Edges

This principle easily expands into professional lives. You can blog, attend conferences, contribute to employee networks, engage on Twitter, discuss ideas at speaker events, or get involved with working groups. Anything you do whereby your ideas become known – whether right or wrong – gives potential collaborators better information on whom to productively involve in future problem solving. These rough edges give people a reasonable context to offer advice, insight, research, or perspective. It's the equivalent of the cocktail party's “Oh really! Did you hear that rock climbing at ______ is half price on Tuesdays now?”

You don't know what you don't know. So, you want to give other people – other people being a demographic that knows a metric boatload more than you – opportunities to help you fill those gaps. But, to open that door, make it apparent what it is that you're interested in and working on. Be open.

Open Living

Being open about ourselves leads to connections and results.

I could write the value proposition, if not a reasonable facsimile of a résumé, for dozens of colleagues based solely on their contributions to community platforms (we can even exclude LinkedIn profiles). Anyone can show you a paper degree; now we publicly embody* our expertise and interests, over time. The difference is that I know, beyond a doubt, that my colleagues didn't earn their degrees with 51% averages – they are experts who care deeply about their fields.

From an organizational perspective, it matters that I can do this. It facilitates productive teamwork and advice-seeking. From a personal perspective, this is important because hiring managers can do this. 2013 is the year of social HR.

Technology doesn't change the foundational principles behind the importance of being open – networking and reputation-building have always been crucial. But it does change the application. In a hierarchy, credit and expertise recognition are muddied by the game of telephone that information gets run through from officers to executives. Open platforms are disruptive here, making it increasingly clear who the contributors are.

Open Government

I'm barely even going to touch open government, because there are so many people with a better understanding. But increasingly, it's hard to ignore the case for open government and stakeholder engagement. My short version, in the context of this piece: the more that government is open about what it's thinking, planning, or researching, the easier it is for appropriate stakeholders to latch on and help said government improve its strategy, build legitimacy for ideas, and avoid potential pitfalls. As Un Tacons commented on my last post, the greatest potential for collaboration is providing clarity on complexity. Or, as Einstein put it:
“If I had 20 days to solve a problem, I would take 19 days to define it."
Multiple eyes are particularly useful for figuring out exactly how wicked the problem you're facing really is.

In Sum

High school was a long time ago, and we can stop trying to be cool and detached. Own up to what you care about, and recognize the value of erring on the side of oversharing. In a hyperconnected world, the Venn diagram of whose business is what is messy and mobile. Accept, and appreciate, those ideas offered in good faith.

Economically, it's building positive-sum games out of even-sum games. It's analogous to $20,000 of GDP representing a car purchase. If privately owned, it creates $20,000 worth of value, for one person. If shared through a service like Vrtucar, the increase in GDP doesn't reflect the real-world value that many people get out of that one car. Just by being open about their needs and interests: “I need a car for four hours on Sunday.” That's it.

More importantly – and this applies to my post on collaboration, as well – if we can derive value from openness and collaboration (and we can, massively), and don't, it's an economic opportunity cost. We may as well be burning money.

So be open. Leave some rough edges.

*I debated different words here: prove, or demonstrate. But I want to make the point that it's not, necessarily, a conscious effort. Some people use open platforms to market themselves; others, more convincingly, contribute to communities and, in doing so, cannot help but prove their expertise.