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December 18, 2008 » 12:07 pm

The Unexpected Pleasures of Open, Transparent Processes

Every project has a team. How those teams form is an interesting question. For the most part, the “leader” of a project decides who is on or off a team, and then they go off on their merry way.    (N2B)

If that work is done openly and transparently, then that opens up the possibility of attracting other contributors. This is the essential goal of movement-building, where the desire is to get other people to act. It’s also what makes Open Source software projects and Wikis work.    (N2C)

The question is, how open and transparent should the process be? Being fully open invites distraction. When the Chandler Project was first announced, list activity went through the roof, and the signal-to-noise ratio was very low. People were galvanized by Mitch Kapor‘s involvement and, of course, everyone had an opinion. It was a dangerous time for the project, because the goals were not concrete, and the process for how to reach concreteness had not yet been established.    (N2D)

How do you balance the desire to be open (and attract outside contributors) with the need to get things done? The key is clarity of vision and process, as well as a realistic assessment of the risks and rewards.    (N2E)

When Doug Engelbart asked me to lead the HyperScope project in 2006, I knew that it was imperative that we deliver. (Visionaries have a sometimes deserved reputation for never actually delivering a product.) At the same time, we really wanted to spread the core ideas widely and galvanize the community.    (N2F)

We had already decided that the project would be Open Source, which meant that some of the processes would inherently be open — open source code repository, open mailing list, open Wiki, and so forth. We also instituted good practices — regularly posting summaries to the community, carrying on much of our activity online (a key principle of the Apache community), and so forth.    (N2G)

I also decided that our weekly face-to-face meetings would be open as well. This was the biggest risk for a few reasons. Doug was going to attend the meetings, and there was a possibility that people would come just to meet Doug. This, in my opinion, was actually a good thing, as long as we weren’t overwhelmed with people and as long as guests did not prevent us from getting things done. I reasoned that we wouldn’t be for two reasons. First, Doug isn’t as much of a household name as he should be, certainly not as much as Mitch Kapor for example. (This is sad and the topic of a future post.) Second, neither was I. I have a large social network, but it’s not enormous, and it’s fairly intimate with lots of trust. I didn’t think a huge number of people would see my announcement, and I trusted those who did to do the right thing.    (N2H)

I was confident in my ability to tightly facilitate the meetings, and I also felt strongly that the rewards of openness, in our case, far outweighed the risks. I was also prepared for the possibility that no one would show up, despite the openness.    (N2I)

I was blown away by who did show up. We had a lot of folks from the old Augmentation Research Center, which was an absolute delight. Many people told me afterwards what a delight it was for them to have us pepper them with questions about their 50-year old work. We had many friends and friends-of-friends visit, all of whom greatly added to the conversation.    (N2J)

Before each meeting, I welcomed our guests, but I also explained that it was a working meeting, and I asked that they respect our need to get things done and participate accordingly. For the most part, that’s all the facilitation I needed to do. I occasionally had to reign people in, but I usually found myself actually encouraging our guests to participate.    (N2K)

At our launch party, I gave special T-shirts to each team member. Two of the people on the team and on the T-shirt were people from the community who found out about our work on their and dropped in. One was John Deneen, a long-time fan of Doug’s, who videotaped and photographed all of our meetings. The second was Craig Latta, a Smalltalk guru who had worked on a variety of old-school hypertext projects in the past and who ended up helping us tremendously on a variety of technical challenges.    (N2L)

http://static.flickr.com/97/236665573_2b0e38419e_m.jpg  T    (N2M)

When I work with groups, I often encourage them to challenge their own assumptions about openness and transparency. Extra effort is required, and sometimes, the hoped-for benefits do not occur. However, more often than not, folks are pleasantly surprised — sometimes even amazed — by what emerges.    (N2N)

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