A few years ago the pioneering technologist Erik Hersman introduced me to an idea that I have since used in virtually all my teaching and consulting.
Addressing a group of senior managers in the car industry in Kenya, Erik said that their greatest breakthroughs were likely to come from "whitespace projects" - proactive employee-driven projects that fall outside of formal roles and responsibilities.
The three criteria for these projects when they start are:
- Roles are undefined
- Strategy is unclear
- Budget is non-existent
"Whitespace innovators don't wait for funds, or supporters to get going on a project", Erik explained, "they start, and hope to attract the resources as the project gains momentum". This approach lowers the costs of failure, and concentrates resources on projects that have traction.
Consistently innovative companies like Google, 3M, Atlassian, Ideo, Ogilvy, and more all make time for this kind of proactive experimentation, and in each of these companies you will hear about how many of their greatest breakthroughs have come from projects developed in the whitespace of their organisation. Employees are allowed a certain amount of time to work ideas that excite them, with the only requirement that they share the outcome of their work with the organisation. It can lead to a more engaged workforce, and a more agile organisation.
If we look at an organisational chart, the formally defined roles and responsibilities are inked in neat black lines of reporting. We call the gaps between those lines, which is what actually fills most of the organisational chart, "Whitespace".
Whitespace is unpredictable, chaotic, and creative. And so as companies grow, it seems necessary to fill in all the whitespace - to replace it with policies, procedures, rules, and regulations to control it. For a while this can improve productivity, reduce costs, and increase predictability in the business. But as we so often see with over-regulated organisations, it can also become stifling - resulting in a demotivated workforce, a decreased ability to respond to threats and opportunities, and ultimately, mediocrity.
While it is the manager's role to deal with blackspace, it is the leader's role to deal with whitespace. Whitespace is where company culture lives and where the interesting and unexpected stuff happens. It is the space in companies where we are allowed to make autonomous decisions, to be leaders in our own way, and to tinker and experiment, to tackle a problem or pursue an opportunity. Leaders need to protect it, and encourage a culture in which the whitespace is used to the benefit of the company.
The Whitespace story of BRCK
That Erik Hersman happened to be the person who introduced this concept to me is not really surprising. Erik has an incredible track record of founding innovative companies and projects that inspire technologists around the African continent and help the world think about African innovation differently.
"BRCK was actually a whitespace project within Ushahidi. It had no funding for the first 9 months, no real buy-in from anyone besides me - or at least, not enough for anyone to commit to doing anything on it - and we had no real idea what it would become".
Even though the idea started without funding, the early protypes of BRCK started costing money, and Erik ended up drawing a total of around $2500 from Ushahidi's operational budget to pay for parts. This is a paltry amount considering the level of funding many tech startups demand before they're prepared to even start working on a product.
About 9 months and several prototypes later, Erik was confident that the BRCK could be a great product and he was ready to get the next level of funding. "We had an Ushahidi board meeting where they asked 'what is Ushahidi doing that is new and interesting?', to which I pulled out a BRCK v4 [see image] and put it on the table, and said 'this'." The prototype was impressive, and the board immediately unlocked a further $30k for the next version of the product, which in turn raised $172k on Kickstarter.
One last piece of advice for would-be whitespace innovators from Erik: "Traction is more important than anything. People say 'ask forgiveness, not permission'. This is true, but only if you have traction to ask forgiveness on".