Lead your virtual organization from behind, and they will drive you forward

The back of the bus

In March, 2013, David Reid at Palantir tweeted a quote: “Drupal’s community is a bus driven by the collective screams of its passengers.” At first glance, this seems really unfortunate. But on reflection, there are some great things going on here. First, it’s a bus, not a limo. Second, it’s filled with passengers. Third, they are passionately engaged in the destination of the bus. And fourth, the bus is responding to them. In short, the Drupal community is doing a lot of things right. 

This tweet took me back to a sunny afternoon in Berkeley at BADCamp. I was in front of Dwinelle Hall (where I first met my wife way back before there was an Internet) talking with Jacob Redding, who, at the time, was the Executive Director of the Drupal Association. I had recently finished Jono Bacon’s book, The Art of Community, taken from his experience helping to lead the community of developers who support the Ubuntu distribution of Linux. I mentioned to Jacob that, compared with Ubuntu, Drupal did not seem to be grounded in a common vision that was written down as a statement somewhere.

Jacob said that the Drupal community doesn’t have a single vision statement but the leaders of the project each may have their own. The Drupal project does have a mission statement (drupal.org/mission). In the project there is a lot of non-visible leadership. The Drupal Association is a good example of that. The Association does not guide or direct the project, but it certainly does watch what is happening with the project and provides the necessary support and services to either sustain momentum on areas in the project or encourage more involvement. “You can say the Drupal Association is leading from behind,” he said.

There are visionaries across the Drupal developer network, dozens of active people who are building new tools and pushing for better code. There are occasions in the year (at big Drupal Camps or at DrupalCon) and moments in the development cycle (sprints and telecons, in discussions on Drupal.org and elsewhere) where these leaders would come forward with their visions, and, at some point, a decision would happen. But the Drupal Association, which runs DrupalCon and hosts Drupal.org, is not out in front breaking trail for these decisions.

I called Jacob last week to get some clarity on this “leading from behind” technique. I might be involved in a grand experiment on governance that the NSF has fostered. It’s called EarthCube, and it proposes to corral all of the geosciences and environmental sciences under a new organization that can manage and promote the multi- and transdisciplinary sharing of data and knowledge. To bootstrap this effort, a seed of governance will be funded. In the first months, this governance kernel will need to get out in front and open up online opportunities for thousands of scientists to step into new leadership positions and get to work. In the subsequent months, the funded governance kernel will need to step back and lead from behind as the community finds its own governance footing. In the final phase, the funds for governance will be passed directly to the community, and kernel will become a front office. But this transition from leading from the front to leading from behind is truly experimental.

“Part of it is allowing chaos to reign,” Jacob told me. The point, I would propose, is to not spend a lot of effort (and time) establishing and then defending a set of top-down decisions. He continued,“a lot of things go wrong when you have a benevolent dictatorship that says ‘this is the way’.” When the community feels the need to make a decision, the lack of a top-down process enables people step up to offer solutions.

Behind the scenes, Jacob noted, the leaders of the Drupal project pay very close attention to all of the blogs and the threads on discussions and comments, and keep track of who was working well with others and who was influencing their peers. It would be vital to have these people in the room for important decisions. This internal eco-system is fostered through support for travel to Drupal events, and through email lists and other back-channel communication. Out in the front channels, the Drupal bus riders are shouting out their visions and their peeves.

The other eco-system to which the Drupal project and Organization pays close attention is the larger CMS world, where big corporations and government agencies are looking to make long-term investments. “This way we can counsel corporate users, and use their feedback to counsel Drupal developers,” Jacob noted. One big part of leading from behind is also watching the road ahead.

You can find Jacob Redding at: http://jredding.info/

Photo Credit: by Guerilla Features | Jason Tester used under CC license on Flickr.

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