leadership, organisational culture

Lean into the white space

This is one of my favourite phrases to describe what great employees do. It might mean solving an unanticipated problem, fulfilling a customer’s unmet need, or doing something new to make the workplace better. But being the one to lean into the white space has both advantages and pitfalls.

A person sits with their laptop computer and a blank notepad. Pen raised, they're about to write on the blank page.
Photo credit J Kelly Brito at Unsplash

There’s white space around all our job descriptions. And we can all choose to reach into that space. When we lean into the white space, we follow a great piece of advice: “Don’t follow your passion. Bring your passion with you!” And we create something new and valuable, for ourselves, our colleagues, and our customers.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably already the sort of person who’s looking to bring their passion wherever they go. Maybe you just can’t help yourself because you want to see things done well. Or maybe you’re looking to progress or change careers and seizing development opportunities . Whatever your motivator, you’re adding extra value to your organisation and your colleagues.

But there are also some disincentives. And it’s worth thinking about how we can tackle them to make leaning into the white space more productive and more attractive, so others can join you there!

I don’t want to tread on anyone’s toes

This is a common anxiety people have. It might come from high-considerateness on a personal level, or low-connectedness on an organisational level. Or you might just have been burnt before by finding that a great project you’ve been working on suddenly “belongs” to someone else. 

We see this particularly in large organisations. Where there’s complexity, it might not be clear who has responsibility for something, or how it might be progressing. It can take weeks of asking around to find out whose job it might be to do something like Great Idea X. Or perhaps it’s 100% clear whose job it is, but they’re not doing it/having the desired effect. Either way, you’re left wondering whether leaning into the white space is going to be a help or a hindrance, to your organisation and to your career!

So what do I do?

Talk to more long-serving colleagues first. Get the backstory on whether this work was ever done or tried, and what happened to it. Then talk to your manager about where the work might live. Find out whether there are any wider organisational issues that stand in your way. 

If you really want to be hands-on, these are nice ways to get informal feedback about how that might go. And getting the idea out there and approaching it with curiosity helps clarify the situation and inspire change, whether or not you end up leading it. 

It’s not worth bothering

This is probably the biggest demotivator for people naturally inclined to lean into white space. And it normally comes about because work in the white spaces goes unnoticed and unrecognised, or is embraced for a few days and then put to one side.

If something that you value isn’t valued by the organisation, that can put your work relationships on shaky ground. Not to mention undermine your self-confidence.

In coaching people in this situation, key questions might be: How essential is this work to the organisation? What would it achieve? What are the tangible outcomes for clients/customers/the bottom line? How essential is this work to you? What is the worst possible outcome of doing this work, for you and for the organisation?

These questions encourage you to think about two things.

  1. The trade-offs (a pros-and-cons balance sheet), and
  2. The motivators (for you and for the organisation).

Think about why the work isn’t already being done, or done well. Is the return on investment actually too low? Is the organisation experiencing initiative overload and trying to refocus? Does the organisation just not value the potential outcomes as highly as you do? Is that a problem for them (a business-model problem), or for you (a role-fit problem)?

So what do I do? 

Your first instinct might turn out to be right, and it’s not worth bothering. But that’s a sign of a bigger issue and another white space you might be able to lean into! 

If you still feel like it’s worth trying, then get curious about how priorities are being decide and focus is being denied or granted. Find current priorities that you think should be deprioritised in favour of the work you want to see done, and ask about them. Why did we start doing this thing? What’s the end goal of it? How long does it continue? 

Curiosity will help you better understand whether what you see is white space you can leap into, or a blank void into which you don’t want to fall.

And, if you are leaning into that white space, perhaps for the first time, or to offer something new, we’ve got some advice and support for making it work in our free 15-day accountability and motivation practice. You can read more here, or sign up right now to start delivering for yourself.