Archive for July 5th, 2006

Layers of the Onion

July 5th, 2006

A few days ago I mentioned the need for positive reinforcement to encourage creativity; Ben Goodger noted the prevalence of Stop Energy (a Dave Winer term) and the need to do something about it.

Two obvious responses are: Stop Energy wins, and the status quo resists attempts at change. During his visit to the Mozilla Corporation Bob Sutton has noted how disastrous this is for most organizations. We’re no exception. Another possibility is a determined individual who ignores all comments and plunges ahead, “knowing” that s/he is correct and change is better. I’ll call this the “Loner” approach for now.

The Loner approach addresses the Stop Energy problem but has many problems of its own. For one thing, the Loner approach is hard on the Loner. He or she must have a very thick skin, must proceed based on s/he thinks without listening to others (including possible improvements), and then must somehow be demanding or threatening or otherwise forceful enough to pull the project along. This is exhausting. The Loner approach is hard on everyone else as well. Bull-headed, demanding people who don’t listen to others are usually difficult people to work with. The Loner has to be really, really, really good to make it worthwhile for others to stomach the trauma. Our strength is the caliber and dedication of people who choose to work with the Mozilla project; encouraging difficult behavior to avoid Stop Energy is an unhealthy setting.

Also, if people get into the habit of believing they are always right and don’t need to listen to anyone else, then all sorts of unpleasant things generally follow. Few people are always completely right. It becomes hard to work together. People become zealots. Moderating influences are lost. Our experience has been that the group intelligence within the Mozilla project is very high; far greater than the intelligence of any one person.

So, how to encourage positive feedback for creative ideas, make use of our group intelligence and avoid Stop Energy? I think many of us use an approach I think of as “Layers of the Onion.” It’s a pretty simple idea. When someone has a new idea, s/he thinks it through a bit, then goes to a group of people he or she thinks of as likely to have the expertise to be helpful and the sense of possibilities to be encouraging and make good suggestions. At some point w/he includes people with a sense of the constraints as well to get a reality check. Feedback (positive and negative) is received and incorporated into the original thinking; maybe some implementation work is done.

Then the idea is discussed with a larger group of people. More feedback is received and incorporated. The idea appears in a public forum for public discussion and review. Maybe the idea never gains traction, maybe it needs more work to be generally acceptable, or maybe it’s time for implementation.

There’s nothing too complex or original about this process, I suspect it happens all the time. I’ve called it out explicitly because I believe that –- properly implemented of course — it’s an approach that meets our criteria of openness and transparency while simultaneously helping to minimize Stop Energy. I’m very focused on doing both of these things well, both for the project as a whole and for the work I need to lead on issues of Mozilla identity and governance.

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