Maturing, successful organisations have recurrent, emergent patterns of failure that can sometimes be predicted and perhaps avoided.
Everything has a season, and as organisations age – communities, charities, companies, churches and more – they face similar diseases of time. These are emergent patterns of failure that arise not from mistakes but from the consequences of earlier success. In open source, we are seeing the same patterns emerge; this should not be a surprise.
Some of them are unavoidable. Understanding them helps leaders reduce the risk they will arise and helps identify them when they do. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but we have encountered all of these modes of systemic failure, some of them often.
Starting and never ending
Starting things is more fun to think about than ending them, but all things come to an end and wise leaders plan for it and manage it when it becomes necessary. Without a review or end date to their commitment, volunteers can feel trapped in a role they only took on to help. Others may feel entitled to retain a role regardless of their own effectiveness and the role’s necessity. Newcomers may feel that all the most interesting opportunities are “dead man’s shoes”.
- Apply term limits to official roles
- Specify start and end dates for new projects when they are approved
- Ensure everything you do has a regular review of its effectiveness against your organisation’s current goals
- If you have an Advisory Board, add this to the agenda of the annual in-person meeting
Steering where you look
Beginners learning to drive a car are told they need to keep looking ahead, and not at the gear lever or at the parked vehicles. The reason is that if you look to the left or right instead of straight ahead, your hands will inevitably steer the car in that direction. If you want to go forwards, keep looking forwards and only glance at the surroundings.
Whatever you claim to believe your goals to be, you will navigate towards wherever you focus your attention and energy. For example, it may be easier to grow the numbers of people involved in a software project, but if your goal requires experienced participants or significant refactoring by a few skilled practitioners then recruitment may make things worse (per Fred Brooks’ “Mythical Man Month”).
- External mentor reviews. This is a key role for an advisory board.
Organisations may be set up to achieve a goal that compensates for an imbalance, but over time those affected will populate and take over your mission. It’s only natural, and often desirable, that those being regulated should be involved in the mechanisms that regulate them. Standards bodies require the companies implementing the standards they generate to be involved in writing the standards, for example.
But if they are the only ones involved, the bodies who invoked standards as a way to prevent monopolisation will soon find that the standards emerging are too easily subsetted, or contain patented elements that lead to cartel pricing, or play other games that convert the mechanism of liberation into a mechanism of captivity. Similarly, larger open source communities with strict rules can find those rules being gamed.
- Include rules that balance suppliers and consumers in the oversight of bodies
- Identify capture modes and make rules that are triggered when they arise
- Evaluate outcomes and high-level patterns as well as discussing low-level rules
- Your advisory board needs client representatives as well as peer experts
You start out serving your community but you end up serving your staff. I’ve seen this happen both with professional bodies and trade associations. Decisions start to be made in ways that deliver the best outcomes for staff members rather than for the community, and democratic mechanisms are diluted and gamed to prevent intervention.
This can happen because of open-ended appointments, because of admirably responsible employment oversight or – sadly – because staff work out where their interests lie and craft a system that optimises them.
- Limit the length of contracts for executives and their direct staff, and apply controls to their renewal.
- Empower the membership to vote for change and give them regular opportunities to do so – for example voting on a biannual appraisal.
- Make rules to prevent that membership vote becoming compromised by super-majority or quorum rules, for example because the membership includes too many passive individuals such as alumni.
When things aren’t right, it’s hard to admit that’s because of things you’ve done or failed to fix. Over time, there is an ever-larger body of outsiders – competitors, members of the general public and especially former insiders – who can be conveniently blamed for things that are wrong now.
Sometimes there is a seed of truth to the blame, especially where the decisions of someone who left are now central to the issue being faced. But unless you can identify a forward-looking remedy that can only be understood in the context of the outsider you want to blame, mentioning them solves nothing, creates hostility towards outsiders more widely and creates fear within your community of what might happen on leaving.
- Censure mention of outsiders unless they are directly involved in the conversation. If they won’t join in, don’t mention them (and especially don’t mention people who don’t know they are being mentioned)
- Censure mention of a blameable category with no named members. No citation means no criticism.
- Cure flame-wars with in-person (or at least synchronous verbal) meetings.
Any entity has a founding generation, deserving of respect for their vision and often their courage in starting the organisation. Because they are the longest-serving members, they hold great institutional memory and they may also be wells of wisdom regarding problem solving, since problems tend to recur.
But they are unlikely to be right forever. Times change, contexts evolve and new generations of leaders arise. Moreover, older people can sometimes get set in their ways and lack insight into new innovations and especially new norms. So it is common for there to be a generational leadership disconnect, with new leaders and older (or former) leaders locking horns over how the organisation should be run.
- Term limits help a lot
- Ensure your voting membership regularly moves former contributors who no longer contribute actively to a respected non-voting alumnus status
- In-person meetings cure many misunderstandings.
There are more modes of failure than this, as well as more ways to detect and perhaps avoid the ones listed above. We are keen to hear your insights.
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