Whitespace matters

Over the course of my career I’ve been fortunate to work for a number of really interesting companies.  What I’ve found to particularly interesting is the degree to which the "whitespace" in each of the businesses contributes to or takes away from the ability of that particular business to innovate, compete, or generally just to get the right shit done.

I define "whitespace" as the freedom during the normal course of business that is not otherwise dominated by responsibilities, activities, reports, meetings, or other formal business requirements.

I first really recognized the whitespace phenomenon when I was with Cambridge Technology Partners.  I joined in 1998 as a Client Partner.  We were swamped with business and most days were 12 to 17 hours of fixed time/fixed price consulting and systems integration.  The culture fostered at CTP was one that encouraged people to collaborate, try out ideas, and not get your hand slapped if it didn’t work out.  The company gave us a good "end point" goals and then said get there however YOU see the best way to get there..  We were absolutely held accountable for delivery and we worked our asses off, BUT we found plenty of whitespace to try out creative new solutions.  We wrote up new business ideas, figured out new ways to solve thorny problems, and we had a great time – all while still achieving the "end point" goals. 

CTP was a huge success and spawned a number of incredibly successful firms, the latest being Optaros, a really interesting OpenSource Systems Integration and Consulting firm founded and led by Bob Gett.  CTP eventually crashed and burned, with a fire-sale to Novell in 2001.  It had everything to do with the culture change and people brought in to "fix" it.

I’ve seen the lack of whitespace, and the corporate culture that goes with it, choke off exactly the kind of innovation, attitude, and enthusiasm that companies depend on to succeed.  When companies begin to fall behind the market and pressure to succeed gets in the executives’ heads, too often the response is a cultural "clamp-down" that squeezes out the whitespace.  When this happens, the smart people leave first. 

The key to effective whitespace, I think, is in the balance between setting the goal and then establishing a culture that allows for the people to achieve that goal, without prescription.