A very dear friend of mine, Vaughan Merlyn, recently suggested that I re-read Eric Raymond‘s book, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar.” It’s been a while since I’ve picked this up and frankly I’d forgotten much of it.
The very first time I read “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” I was working for a company in the open-source software space. At that time, many years ago now, I was relocating my desk from the Cathedral into the Bazaar, and the book offered me valuable cultural perspective. At this writing, nearly 10 years later, the whole open-source versus closed-source dialogue is in quite a different place and it almost feels as awkward to reflect upon open-source development as some sort of alternative to mainstream as it does to think about whether my car is American, Japanese, Korean, German, or Mexican (it’s a bit of all those and it’s just the way it is these days).
My most recent reading of this book though gives me a completely different serving of brain food, for which I’m grateful to Mr. Raymond. I’d like to share a couple of those points with you here.
I consider myself somewhat of an innovator, and innovation in general, is something that I admire. In the organizations in which I’ve worked professionally, “innovation” has been treated in many different ways. Innovation, is seldom dismissed as unnecessary or undesirable (in fact, I can’t remember a single case in which that was so, but I’ll leave the door cracked). Some organizations proclaim to value innovation, but there may be very little evidence of that sentiment when observing the organization. Still other organizations truly do value innovation and try hard to cultivate it. Then there are those organizations that have an innovation identity; that not only frequently produce innovation but leverage frequency of innovation as a strategic differentiator in the market place.
In his book, Eric Raymond dedicates a very long footnote to the topic of innovation and makes what I feel is a very profound quotation. He says that “the root problem of innovation is how not to squash it… even more fundamentally, it is how to grow lots of people who can have insights in the first place.”
The point about not squashing innovation strikes a cord with me. I think this is a challenge for many large organizations. Innovation happens at the fringe. It is manifest through the individual (I would argue, rather than the “team”). Innovation can be squashed by limiting the voices and outlet channels of the individuals in the organization. It can be squashed by overloading the individual such that tactical priorities tend to take the place of accessing outlet channels. It can be squashed also, by demonstrating lack of appreciation for innovations regardless of the message openly communicated to the contrary.
When applying for new positions, I’m frequently asked about my management style. In the University classes that I teach, I observe that the management style that works for Traditionalists, may work less well for Boomers, and probably not well at all for X-ers or Next-ers (classrooms are very age-diverse these days).
Eric Raymond includes a quote from the 19th-century Russian anarchist, Pyotr Alexeyvich Kropotkin which says, “Having been brought up in a serf-owner’s family, I entered active life with a great deal of confidence in the necessity of commanding, ordering, scolding, punishin and the like. But when, at an early stage, I had to manage serious enterprises and to deal with free men, and when each mistake would lead at once to heavy consequences, I began to appreciate the difference between acting on the principle of command and discipline and acting on the principle of common understanding. The former works admirably in a military parade, but it is worth nothing where real life is concerned, and the aim can be achieved only through the severe effort of many converging wills.”
“The severe effort of many converging wills” has a certain power to it, would you agree?
You may think I’m out on a limb with this one, but here goes. The innovations of the open-source phenomenon happened after the emergence of cheap Internet access. Prior, there were geographically identifiable think-centers in places such as Bell Labs, UC Berkeley, MIT AI and LCS labs, and others. The reach of Internet network access and the range of application capabilities quickly becoming available over the web, enabled a global talent pool to converge collective will.
This same phenomenon is the basis for my own views on the power of web 2.0 technology. The ability to socialize and collaborate globally on a massive scale is an enabler of incredible force well beyond tasks such as application development. Now on such a massive scale, we have enabled individuals to express their own unique thought (the basis for innovation), and to influence others without any limitations of organizational, geographic, political, or religious boundaries. Innovation, individual creative freedom, and the power of influence and collaboration. That indeed, is a disruptive cocktail.