Mrs McKenzie was the first person who asked me to work in the open. She was my maths teacher, and she called it “show your working” — it was a way for me to help her understand my process. Mrs McKenzie wanted a deeper insight into my thought process, so she could judge me more accurately.
Lesson number 1. Showing my working was a thing I did to impress my teachers and get good grades.
Mr Grant was the second person who asked me to work in the open. He was my art teacher, and he called it “showing your process” — he explained that the messier, bulkier and more colourful my process was, the better. She with the largest, heaviest sketchbook wins the race.
Lesson number 2. Showing my work was a creative process that helped me learn.
Fast forward to university, and I found myself registering a blog on my way out the door to the airport. I was on my way to Amsterdam to join Design Thinkers for my first ever job. I decided I’d keep a blog to document my day-to day-work; a diary of sorts. Just for me.
Lesson number 3. The internet was an easy way for me to talk about my work and my ideas in a way that other people could access and learn from.
Ten years later, working in the open is part of my daily working routine. Like many of you, I’ve learned how to share my process in a way that helps me and the people who engage with my content. It’s become commonplace for many of us, yet the very idea of working in the open remains an obscure mystery to many who still find the idea confusing, cringeworthy or simply a luxury they don’t have the time to indulge in.
The three lessons I learned at school and university still stand. Working in the open leads to opportunities, it makes me smarter, and it makes me and my work findable. The people I admire the most are people who are genuinely open about what they’re working on; consistently posting ideas and opinions. The motto ‘If you build it, they will come’ doesn’t work. Especially if you’ve grown up as a woman, it’s safer and more comfortable to hide behind our work. Working in the open means being intentionally visible.
10 benefits of working in the open
Here are ten reasons why shining a light on you and your work is a good idea:
- Transparency: The more people understand, the more likely they will engage, support, buy or champion.
- Sharing learning: If you share the mistakes you make and lessons you learn, it makes it easier for those a few steps behind you.
- Creating new networks: Like-minded people will find you and your work, and this can lead to connections, opportunities and even friendships.
- Building trust through displaying vulnerability: The more open you are about what’s working and what’s not, the more others will trust your intentions.
- Promoting accountability and openness: When you write something down, you are more likely to do it. When you write something on the internet, you are even more likely to do it.
- Inhibiting spin: Sharing your work in progress reduces temptation and opportunity for spin and fluff. All hail any process that does that!
- Bringing others along: Making change happen with others is incredibly difficult. Sharing your thinking and process regularly and often makes it easier for people to join you for the ride.
- Building credibility and self esteem: Working in the open helps you become known for the things you are working on and the things you think. It also makes it easier for people to give you positive feedback (and yes it’s nearly always positive and constructive — people aren’t as mean as you may think).
- Helping with recruitment: What’s the first thing you do when you have a job interview? You google the company. Now, imagine you could read blog posts going back five years from all the folks who work there.
- Helping with learning / reframing and reflecting: Building a habit of sharing your work encourages self reflection. Self reflection makes you smarter.
It’s important we recognise what working in the open is and what it is not. Working in the open is sharing your journey, sharing the day-to-day lessons, thoughts, progress and setbacks. It is not a public performance, “thought leadership” or showing off.
Let’s take the most common objections I hear and think about one thing we can try to overcome them.
Objection number 1: “I really struggle for time”
There is no doubt about it, working in the open does require time. But you need to realise that nobody is going to give you more time or take something off your plate, so you can prioritise it.
Try this: Put a recurring hold of 30 minutes every Wednesday morning (or whenever might work best for you) in your calendar and commit to making this time sacred. You have to decide working in the open is worthy of your time, and then take it.
Objection number 2: “I don’t feel safe enough”
It’s really important we recognise that working in the open is riskier and practically more difficult the more disadvantages you face. For example, a white man in a senior role will find it easier to work in the open than a newly hired Asian woman in a junior position.
Try this: Design a working-in-the-open experiment that feels “safe to try”. This means it’s something that isn’t perfect but means you will start. It’s safe to try because if it goes wrong, no irreversible harm will come to you. This might look like sending a tweet every Friday evening with one thing you learned that week or writing down the three questions on the top of your mind every second Monday morning.
Objection number 3: “I don’t have permission”
You don’t need permission. It’s up to you to share information that is safe to share. If in doubt – share something else.
Try this: Start small. Start by sharing work, ideas and opinions that you are certain are safe to share. If you need permission to spend your time on working in the open, this might help you make the case.
Objection number 4: “I don’t think my work is interesting enough”
This is the most common objection I hear when I talk to people about working in the open. This article from Sara Wachter-Boettcher articulates why and how to overcome this fear.
Try this: Show your work for the past you. You know, the person who didn’t know a damn thing about the work you are doing now. The person who stared at a problem with no idea how to start solving it. You… before you figured this shit out. Amy Hupe started a brilliant experiment to match budding bloggers with experienced bloggers to challenge the myth of not being interesting enough; you can read about it here.
Objection number 5: “I’m too busy doing the real work”
Putting your work out there and making it findable while you’re focused on doing good work is possible. In fact, I’d argue that working in the open will help increase your impact. How Women Rise articulates why women need to work harder at being known for the work they do, than men.
Try this: You must accept that good work does not speak for itself. You must help people find you and your work. What is the question you asked the most about what you do? Write down your answer and share it with others.
Working in the open in practice
So how does one work in the open? There is a whole host of tools you can use: Blog posts, Twitter, Kanban boards, Trello boards, flipchart, weeknotes, posters, events, meetups and Instagram. Try them out and see what works for you. They are all free to try.
Now let’s look at some examples of how organisations and individuals work in the open.
Eighteen years ago, Netflix released its now-famous culture deck, which has now been viewed over five millions times and is still relevant today.
The Government Digital Service has working in the open written into their values; ‘Make things open, it makes things better.’
Spotify’s design team are known for pasting their work up on the walls, inviting non-designers to crit, and share design decks on internal channels in order to collect feedback from outside stakeholders.
Buffer is a company known for radical transparency; employee salaries, diversity workforce numbers, and overall revenue are just a few of the metrics that are available to the public. Even the code used to power Buffer is open source and available on GitHub.
Sam Villis, Acting Head of Digital at National Leadership Centre, Cabinet Office who writes about her journey of publishing week notes every week:
“Gender plays a role in working in the open. A lot of weeknote writing means being vulnerable and taking up space, some people find that easier than others. That said, I found blogging a relatively safe space to experiment and experiment with being myself at work.” Sam Villis
Pia Andrews, the Digital Lead and Special Advisor for the Benefits Delivery Modernization program at Service Canada (ESDC) in Ottawa, Canada, who’s been blogging for 17 years:
“If you do something, you may as well do it to share. Then you naturally get more reuse, more value realised, more opportunity to improve, more eyes. Don’t just run an event, record it to publish. Don’t just write a manual, publish it for broader reuse. Don’t just develop a fix for something, contribute it back to the codebase. And with more eyes, you can harness more minds, more ideas, more creativity, more testing, and more hands. The work we do in public sectors affects many people, so there are many people naturally motivated to ensure the work is good.” Pia Andrews
Anne Laure Le-Cunff, founder of Ness Labs, is a big proponent of learning in public. She tweets about her progress, her questions and her mistakes. She blogs regularly and she has a newsletter:
“When being visible is weaved into the fabric of your work, it doesn’t feel like additional work.” Anne-Laure Le Cunff
10 top tips to get you started:
The following tips are an amalgamation of advice from work in the open champions who have been doing this for a long time: Sam Villis, Matt Jones, Pia Andrews, Ben Holliday, Matt Jukes, Amy Hupe, Steve Messer, Kirsty Joan Sinclair and Neil Tamplin.
- Use I instead of we: This is your work, your opinion and your thinking. Sign your work. Speak from the I.
- Be honest but not too honest: People want to know the truth but we don’t want to hear about all the things that drive you crazy about your co-workers. Use your common sense; balance honesty and positivity.
- Be kind to others who are working in the open: It’s a hard thing to do that can feel scary and risky when you begin. Cheerlead and champion others by sharing, liking, forwarding and commenting. The weeknotes community is a perfect example of this.
- Blend professional and personal: Working in the open is a way to let others into your world; it’s an opportunity to share more than a Linkedin profile would.
- It’s a sliding scale: Working in the open is a sliding scale, you get to choose the degree of openness that suits your goals and current focus.
- Making networking nicer: Meeting new people is hard. Period. Working in the open is an amazing way to make new connections with people.
- Steal like an artist: As Austin Kleon says, nothing is original, look at how others do it. Deconstruct their tools, approach and rhythm. Copy and repeat till you find a way that works for you.
- Choose your platform: You can’t be on every channel all of the time. It’s up to you to choose the medium that suits you best. Choose one and try it for a bit and then reassess.
- Own the story of your work: If you don’t own and write the story of your work. Someone else will.
- It’s a practice: Like anything worthwhile, it takes a while to build a practice. You start by starting and you keep going by practising.
Sign your name
“I used to do a lot of street art but never really signed my name. I’m not sure why. Perhaps I felt embarrassed. But this time I thought, fuck it, I’m just going to sign my name as big as possible, and it’ll be really clear for all to see. Then Armani got in touch and hired me for a project. I asked, how did you find out about me? They said that they saw my mural on North Street.” Camilla Walala
Imagine that. Sign your name. Own the story of your work. Our power is in our togetherness. All we have to do is work in the open.