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.

One comment for “Layers of the Onion”

  1. 1

    Anonymous said on July 6th, 2006 at 5:52 am:

    For what it’s worth (as an outsider but a very active participant in the Mozilla ecosystem), I don’t see this problem at Mozilla. It only takes two people for someone to feel that their ideas and opinions aren’t being given enough weight, and this dynamic is amplified in larger communities. Success is not defined by universal warm fuzzies… mediocrity is. What is needed is a meritocratic framework for filtering out the best initiatives, something that Mozilla excels at. Great programmers who make great contributions are going to be taken more seriously when they come up with kooky new schemes, and this is exactly as it should be.

    The process you describe is precisely what I see happening constantly at Mozilla. Someone writes something the wiki, people comment, things eventually get implemented, tested and find their way into the software. Granted, it’s much easier for the leading lights of the community to get their initiatives noticed, but that’s unavoidable.

    Which leads me to Mozilla’s real trump card: its extension mechanism. Over a year ago, we started working on an ambitious extension to add P2P networking, identity, presence, services integration, local storage and much more to Firefox. We had no experience with Mozilla or visibility within its community. Nonetheless, we were able to add all of these capabilities to the browser, with extensive support and assistance from people who were willing to lend a helping hand just because we were asking for it. Of course, this is no guarantee that our work will end up being valuable to Mozilla. The important thing is anyone with an idea and the initiative to bring it to fruition can extend the Mozilla platform and let the market will decide whether it’s interested. Harnessing market forces in this way is by far the most powerful protection against organizational sclerosis.

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