Total Openness, Equality, Stalemate, And Anarchy

August 10, 2009

So you and some friends have decided to launch an open source project. Sweet. Then among the many decisions you must make regarding the new project is organization. Just ‘how‘ will you organize the team(s) to get things done, and ‘how‘ will decisions be made, and ‘who‘ will control and safeguard the projects ‘stuff‘ and processes?

Believe me when I tell you, these last questions are the most important you will answer, because if you get them right, everything else you plan and set up in the project will work well and things will get done, and the project will grow. But, get them wrong, and the project will be in trouble from the get-go. Get them wrong, and either internal conflict and anarchy will bring you down, or apathy and the inability to make real decisions will grind you into stagnation. Either way, eventually, people will begin to tire of the whole thing and drop out one by one to move on to other more satisfying projects.

I know of a project that has come into existence as a result of disenchantment with things in a previous project of which they had been a part. It was a leadership conflict – the details are not relevant here. But as a result, a new project was launched by those who left in disenchantment. As a result of the conflict in the old project, they determined to structure the new project in such a way that no one could control the project – so that everyone was ‘equal‘, and everything was ‘open‘ and above board to the entire community, in and out of the project. They called it ‘complete openness.’

When they answered the questions I posed above, they made choices that left everyone ‘equal‘ with a vote on ‘everything‘. People volunteered for team membership because of their ‘interests‘ and ‘skills‘. But no one appointed team leaders – the teams themselves were supposed to do that. Some did, and some didn’t. As a result, no one was really in charge of anything, and it was very difficulty to get anything done. Feet dragged, people fussed with one another over philosophy, style, methodology, etc. Egos got in the way and there was no one to say ‘Stop!‘ No ‘real‘ decisions ever seem to get made. Things seem pretty stagnated on several levels.

As you can see, the wrong answers to the above posed questions has resulted in a fairly troubled project – a great concept behind them – good people involved – but just dragging along getting very little done. And to date, there has been no public result of their efforts after six months of work. You see, they really have no leadership in the sense of ‘real‘ leadership. No one can say, ‘Do this‘ to anyone or any team, no one can say, ‘No‘ without taking a vote.

Frankly, someone ‘has‘ to be in charge of a group effort for it to progress. Even in an elected civil government, once elected, the leaders have to lead, make decisions, say, ‘Yes‘ and say, ‘No!‘ Without that it is just like it says in scriptures: “In those days there was no king in Israel, and every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” And that is a recipe for failure

Total ‘openness‘ sounds great on paper. ‘Equality‘ is a great idea as long as it applies to the right things. But get them wrong, and you will find your project mired in stagnation and/or anarchy. Either way, your project will slowly peter out and ultimately fail. And even if you do manage to at some point to put out a product, the problems won’t go away, and project will continue in ill health, probably for as long as it continues to exist.

Pay attention to ‘how‘ you organize your project, and ‘why‘ you chose that way to do it. It will pay dividends every day!

–Theoden