Managing in Whitespace: How It's Different and Why It Matters

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April 27, 2017 | Harvard Business School Executive Education | HCI

A large organization’s formal structures and processes are only part of the story when it comes to making a difference and achieving success. Projects can begin under the radar screen, but then eventually transform the organization.

If transformative projects can start small, company executives grapple with four questions:

  1. Does a leader manage something that’s unable to be seen, and that might not exist or progress if subjected to conventional management disciplines?
  2. If projects occur outside the formal organization, do we just wait for particular people to make them happen?
  3. Can unique hires be managed to deliver maximum value to the business? If yes, how?
  4. What if the unique hires lack real potential to add value to the business?

Researchers attempted to answer these questions through an in-depth study of such projects at 12 companies. They found that managing outside-the-box efforts require particular skills and approaches that differ from traditional management. By developing skills in both kinds of management and switching gears when appropriate, managers can more effectively contribute to their organizations’ success. By understanding what makes these projects different, senior executives can create more value.

“Whitespace” is the name we give to the domain in which these types of projects operate. Think of a page of text - black letters on white paper. The text represents the formal structures and processes through which the organization executes its strategy - roles, responsibilities, and reporting structures, processes to define and fund key efforts, and practices that kick off these projects, keep them on track and ensure their completion.

Now think about all the other space on the page that is not occupied by black text. There’s a lot of whitespace, right? That’s the informal organization - relationships and loyalties that exist outside formal reporting structures, resources that seem to come from nowhere, and projects that proceed outside the normal management control processes. All kinds of things happen in whitespace, from critical idea exchange around the coffee machine to the creation of entire new business lines.

To enable a project to flourish in whitespace, we must leave behind traditional approaches to planning, management and control, but that doesn’t mean the project isn’t managed. Our research has uncovered some very creative ways in which whitespace managers address the intrinsic challenges and opportunities of operating in the whitespace - techniques they use to establish legitimacy, mobilize resources, build momentum and measure results.

Of course, not all whitespace projects are created equal. Some are great for the company, such as when one person champions a clever idea that seems underwhelming at first, but becomes a very successful product. Other whitespace projects waste resources without delivering value and some are downright destructive, like when personal agendas undermine important company goals. Senior executives should take concrete steps to nurture the most valuable whitespace projects, and pull the plug on others.

Human resources executives can improve the organization’s capacity for whitespace leadership by hiring managers with these key capabilities, incorporating them in mangers’ development plans, and providing support throughout a whitespace project.

To learn more about the practices of successful whitespace managers—and how you can build them into your organization to increase opportunities for innovation and success—join us for the upcoming webcast, Becoming a Whitespace Champion:  Creating Value By Broadening the Manager’s Toolkit.