How to Kill Open Book Management

Wednesday, February 14th, 2007

I received a response to an endorsement I gave to Open Book Management in my e-mail newsletter. Here’s what the reader said.

“Hi Rick, I would bet that the company I work for believes they have an Open Book approach to communications. However, the reality (to worker bees) is quite different. Yeah, we have a comprehensive internal web site, and frequent emails highlighting key initiatives, news, etc. However, when it comes to communicating about tasks, responsibilities, and new issues, we get an email that has been forwarded by up to 3-4 layers of management, with no explanation of the impact, the method for resolution, why the issue or initiative is important, but with the expectation that (without any training) we will resolve the issue. It’s amazing to me. Nearly everyone I’ve encountered in my department don’t believe a certain issue belongs in our domain because we don’t create the problems, have not been trained how to resolve the problem, and can’t prevent the problem. Yet our VP has ‘stepped up to the plate’ for us to resolve, on top of our daily responsibilities.”

Open Book Management can be misunderstood and misused just like anything else. Just piling on meaningless e-mail on top of other confusing memos is not Open Book Management (OBM).

I believe three things need to be in place for OBM to work.


  1. Correct intention. Management wants to give everyone the critical information that drives the business without filters or going through layers of management. Everyone gets the same information at the same time. And senior management is committed to giving people the reasons why this information is critical.
  2. Some system is in place to ensure that people are given the power to act on what they learn about the state of the business. It’s not enough that a group of programmers know that the business is tanking. This gruesome news must be coupled with a way for these employees to use their own creativity and resources to fix their part of the problem. The beauty of OBM is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach that is best. I’ve seen highly structured systems to extremely informal ones work equally well.
  3. A way to monitor and tweak the process to make sure that people get the information in a way that makes sense to them, they are given the latitude to act, and that there is a feedback loop so that they can see quickly if their efforts are making a difference.


The books by John Case and Jack Stack are great ones to read if you want to learn more about Open book Management. For a very basic primer you can read my short article:

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