Open email leads to ’emergent coordination’

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Greg Brockman of Stripe — the company that provides a credit card payment service that others can embed in web apps — has adopted a fairly revolutionary model of email use. They have — with a few exceptions — opted to keep all email open, and available to all staff. The original motivation was efficiency, but this experiment has led to a large impact on company structure.

Greg Brockman, Email transparency

Initially, the motivation for having all email be internally public and searchable was simply to make us more efficient. If everyone automatically knew what was happening, we needed fewer meetings, and our coordination was more fluid and more painless if we could all keep up with the stream.

As we’ve grown, the experiment has become about both efficiency and philosophy. We don’t just want Stripe to be a successful product and company. We also want to try to optimize the experience of working here. As as we’ve grown, we’ve come to realize that open email can help.

We value autonomy, rigorous debate, and avoiding hierarchy to the extent that we can. Startups often pride themselves on having a flat management structure but are eventually forced to put a formal coordination infrastructure in place as the number of actors grows. So far, our experience has been that an ambiently open flow of information helps to provide people with the context they need to choose useful things to work on. It doesn’t eliminate the need for other kinds of structure, but it does make emergent coordination much easier and more likely.

It also makes it more likely that controversial issues are addressed as they arise, counteracting inevitable conflict-avoidance tendencies. The open flow obviates a lot of internal politics and avoids the sort of accidental surprises that sometimes crop up in organizations. It also makes everyone happier. Most people at Stripe are information junkies, and are naturally curious about how other parts of the organization work. We want to encourage that.

Technically, Stripe has built upon Gmail’s support for Groups, and they built a custom list management interface on top of the Google API, which they are planning to release under open source at some point. They rely on filters to automatically apply labels, archive things, which was dicey enough that they wrote their own filter manager. They have 100+ lists, and a relatively strict notion of how the various sorts work: please read Brockman’s post for details.

Brockman ends with this observation:

As with much of what we do, we’re not sure yet how this will scale. Still, most of the experience of a startup is doing things that work well at some size, and then figuring out how to make them continue to work as you grow. The email transparency is something that people consistently identify as one of the best parts of Stripe’s structure, and we plan to work hard to retain its core properties as we grow.

My bet is that it will scale as needed, since it is inherently socially scaled. And whatever the costs are to support this sort of radical transparency — like building the custom software for filters and list management — is worth it. How can you put a value on what might be the greatest point of leverage in the corporate culture that Stripe is building?

Underlying this is the premise that culture is best supported by treating knowledge and access as a shared commons, and to avoid breaking it up into privately managed and secret repositories.

A comment in passing: years ago, JP Rangaswami developed a similar model for his direct reports when he was at BP. He had rigged the email system so that all email sent or replied to his corporate was automatically directed to all his reports. He mentioned that one of the biggest benefits was that his team could observe how he interacted with others, and how he solved issues that arose. Brockman doesn’t talk to that directly, but it must be a large part of the ’emergent coordination’ going on at Stripe.

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