Recently, I read Seth Godin’s book Poke the Box: When Was the Last Time You Did Something for the First Time?. It’s a short book, but it’s filled with anecdotes about people who have “poked the box,” which is to say they have taken a risk.
Godin uses the metaphor of a box to represent any idea you might have. He talks about the lizard brain, and our instinctual fear of starting something new. Poking the box involves starting that something, and it’s about taking a risk. That something can be an open source project, a new business, skydiving for the first time—anything.
What holds us back from starting that new project, or from learning a new language like Python is that most of us need approval before we try something new. Approval comes from coworkers and friends, family and others, who might encourage us to start something new. But what if we don’t get that approval? Most of us are too afraid to take that next step for fear of being wrong—and that’s what the book invites us to do. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step (or a poke).
The more I read, the more I realized that Jim Whitehurst’s book, The Open Organization, is also in many ways about learning to poke the box.
For one, writing and sharing code might be new to us, but collaborating and debugging code is about finding what’s wrong and making it right. Our competitive edge and desire to be correct can conspire against our efforts to produce something new. And, Godin writes that once starting new things becomes a way of life, momentum builds, and you get more comfortable at generating those new starts.
“As you create a culture of people who are always seeking to connect, improve and poke,” Godin says, “the bar gets raised.”
The open source principle of meritocracy is one open organizations practice, and it’s here that starting something new is celebrated. A system that rewards innovation spurs more innovation, especially given an organizational model that allows a free flow of information throughout.
Starting something new invites innovation into the process and produces a creative tension that comes from starting something new and (as Whitehurst puts it) “lets the sparks fly.”
Godin writes: “Today, not starting is far worse than being wrong. If you start you’ve got a shot at evolving and adjusting. You can turn your wrong into right. But if you don’t start, you never get a chance.”
Those doing the poking have to become comfortable with being initiators. Open organizations foster a culture of collaboration, cooperation, and creativity that invites change, and poking is about being comfortable with innovation. Taking risks can be scary—after all, you can fail. But, one of the tenets of the open source way is to “release early and release often.” The system allows projects to fail and fast. Failure is not the end; it’s only part of an ongoing process.
There is great wisdom in discovering errors early in a project and making corrections in one’s approach. In software community terms: Debugging is a community process. Godin goes on to say, “If you see something, say something.” This directive compliments the open organization’s release early and often approach to development.
In many organizations the culture is not open; people know that if you want to get ahead you need to shut up and keep your head down. But, that’s a recipe for failure. And it’s more expensive, because (often) processes or products are much further developed before anyone detects problems with them.
Because failure is seen as part of the process in an open organization and people are encouraged to be transparent about those failures, everyone accomplishes more creative work. Godin relates the story of Starbucks founder Jerry Baldwin, who initially opened a store to sell coffee beans, tea leaves, and herbs.
Godin says, “Poking doesn’t mean right, it means action.” That action, of starting, allows the manifestation of what might be to happen.