The “community” and decision-making

June 6th, 2006

Periodically I hear people say things like “the community will decide.” Or “let the community handle it.” This has always sounded amorphous to me and I’ve finally realized why. This way of looking at things assumes there is little clear leadership and no actual decision-maker. This is a misunderstanding of many open source projects, which have real leadership and ultimate decision makers. For example, Linus Torvalds makes decisions for the kernel, Apache has a committee system, Brendan is responsible for technical decisions in the Mozilla project. In the Mozilla project we try to delegate authority so that:

  • many decision-makers are involved in their areas of expertise;
  • an ultimate decision-maker exists but is involved only when necessary; and
  • decision-makers are chosen and evaluated by their ability to provide leadership that draws in other contributors.

This last point is extremely important. Decision-makers who don’t provide leadership make it hard to build a good project. Decision-makers who people don’t want to follow will struggle. Open source software always gives people a choice. Participants are always free to try something different using the same underlying code. So the decision-maker’s role has many facets. Basically it boils down to making enough decisions correctly enough that people continue to choose to participate. In other words, leadership.

Other projects may invoke the authority of the ultimate decision maker more or less often. The important point is that many open source projects incorporate clear decision-making into their processes.

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