The discussion Bob Sutton lead at the Mozilla Corporation was also very helpful in thinking about the need to find people who can see and encourage the possibilities in a new idea. This grew out of a discussion of risk-taking and trying new things. In particular, the need to be careful about changing our products too drastically while at the same time encouraging innovation and responding to changes in how people use the Internet.
The discussion with Bob helped me see this in more general terms. Creativity needs encouragement. It’s not that easy to generate relevant new ideas. Brainstorming, encouragement and a sense of potential are needed to foster creativity. But it’s often hard to see the possibilities in an idea someone else has come up with. And it’s very easy to be critical and to think of all the reasons something won’t work. Put these together and it’s easy to end up with a situation where new ideas seem nearly impossible to implement, require too much change to even think about, or just not worth the risk.
So having a group of people to test out new ideas and see something other than the difficulties is important. Of course, many people do this informally, testing out ideas on growing circles of people. Some organizational awareness and focus on this can also do wonders. The Mozilla project has some obvious groups for trying out new ideas — module owners, super-reviewers, the peers for a particular module, etc. Most of these are code specific, and few of these address ideas across code modules. Also, there are an entire range of questions related to the products (in addition to the underlying code) for which we don’t have obvious “seed” groups for thinking about new ideas.
Sometimes I hear people say that all ideas should always be in a public forum such as a newsgroup and that all discussions in selected smaller groups should be avoided. Now I have a better idea of why this hasn’t seemed right to me. Some ideas get no response in these forums. And these forums suffer from the problem that it’s much easier to criticize than to see the possibilities in a new, unformed ideas. And sometimes the loudest, most aggressive responses get the most attention, regardless of whether they are the most thoughtful, knowledgeable or rational.
I absolutely agree that public discussions are critical in open source projects, both in getting information to make decisions, communicating decisions and archiving the thought process that lead to decisions. That doesn’t mean that each that each germ of a new idea needs to be launched into the public as the initial method of thinking about it. Sometimes a small group of people with expertise and the ability to see possibilities among the constraints is a fine place to start. They keys are to get the discussion to ever broadening groups of people and to a public discussion at the right time, to be open to criticism and change of plans at all stages, to have a good ultimate decision-making process and to get records of rational eand decisions in a public pace.
This fit in well with the project currently and probably temporarily known as “Mozilla Prototypes”, which I’ll write about shortly. It also spurred my thinking about the types of groups that would be helpful in questions of Mozilla project governance. I’ll write about that soon too.