In my first job out of law school I remember working in the “kennels.” Young prosecutors in a sea of cubicles, the kennels (as they were affectionately nicknamed) offered a cacophony of ringing phones, the sound of keyboards being pounded, fax machines spitting out subpoenas and colorful conversations with crime victims. It was a vibrant yet over-crowded environment to cut your teeth as a young prosecutor. In the kennels, it was common to share a phone, a computer, office supplies and to feel like you didn’t have any room to think.
It wasn’t all bad. The kennels also offered an incredible support system. If you had a problem, your neighbor probably knew the answer and was quick to offer his/her advice. Shared space also meant shared ideas, tactics and best practices. Because you started together as a “class” you saw yourself as a team and learned and developed together. This collegiality taught me about openness and innovation and how one usually informed the other. If I had been in an office by myself, there would be no ready neighbor to help solve a problem. The kennels, although uncomfortable at times, created an environment that produced great ideas.
I have taken some of these lessons with me to the City of Philadelphia’s Managing Director’s Office. For a little over a year, I have maintained an open door policy on Fridays from 3-5pm. Through this policy, I invite employees and citizens into my office to connect, share best practices and discuss ideas. Leaders can become isolated. Particularly in positions with some power, you can become enclosed in what is often called “the bubble.”
The open door policy is a happy medium between the loud kennels and a closed door approach. Now, although I have my own space and occasionally (rarely) get quiet time to think, I let employees and citizens know that my door is open. This helps create the kind of collegial environment where employees feel comfortable enough to be creative, knowing that their ideas will actually be heard. It is important to note that this policy is not an invitation for employees to complain about managers. We have specific and effective Human Resources functions for that. Instead, open door hours are designed to produce something substantively positive.
And they have. Through these sessions, employees have shared ideas on how to provide computers to a vulnerable elderly population in our city. I have heard ideas on how to improve employee training and other interdepartmental processes. Citizens and students have used these office hours too—they’ve shared ideas, addressed concerns and asked questions about city government and how they can get involved.
My advice to managers is this: don’t be scared to open your door to new ideas —it might get uncomfortable at times, it might invite ideas that are unconventional —but it also might create the kind of environment where employees and citizens feel heard and empowered to make a difference. Where they are anxious to find solutions. If we are paying attention, innovation can come from anywhere. This is the kind of environment where creativity is treasured, where innovation, like your doors, can come unhinged to foster some of the most creative solutions. The first sign of an open innovative mind might just be an open door.
Rich Negrin is the City of Philadelphia’s Managing Director and Deputy Mayor for Administration and Coordination. Service Centered Leadership is the Managing Director’s blog series appearing on PhillyInnovates. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichNegrin.