Monday, 16 October 2017

The Yin & Yang of OSGeo Leadership


The 2017 OSGeo Board elections are about to start. Some of us who have been involved with OSGeo over the years have collated thoughts about the effectiveness of different strategies. Hopefully these thoughts will be useful for future boards, and charter members who are about to select board members.
The Yin and Yang of OSGeo
As with life, there are a number of Yin vs Yang questions we are continually trying to balance. Discussions around acting as a high or low capital organisation; organising top down vs bottom up; populating a board with old wisdom or fresh blood; personal vs altruistic motivation; protecting privacy vs public transparency. Let’s discuss some of them here.
Time vs Money
OSGeo is an Open Source organisation using a primary currency of volunteer time. We mostly self-manage our time via principles of Do-ocracy and Merit-ocracy. This is bottom up.
However, OSGeo also manages some money. Our board divvies up a budget which is allocated down to committees and projects. This is top-down command-and-control management. This cross-over between volunteer and market economics is a constant point of tension. (For more on the cross-over of economies, see Paul Ramsey’s FOSS4G 2017 Keynote, http://blog.cleverelephant.ca/2017/08/foss4g-keynote.html)
High or low capital organisation?
Our 2013 OSGeo Board tackled this question:
Should OSGeo act as a high capital or low capital organisation? I.e., should OSGeo dedicate energy to collecting sponsorship and then passing out these funds to worthy OSGeo causes.
While initially it seems attractive to have OSGeo woo sponsors, because we would all love to have more money to throw at worthy OSGeo goals, the reality is that chasing money is hard work. And someone who can chase OSGeo sponsorship is likely conflicted with chasing sponsorship for their particular workplace. So in practice, to be effective in chasing sponsorship, OSGeo will probably need to hire someone specifically for the role. OSGeo would then need to raise at least enough to cover wages, and then quite a bit more if the sponsorship path is to create extra value.
This high capital path is how the Apache foundation is set up, and how LocationTech propose to organise themselves. It is the path that OSGeo started following when founded under the umbrella of Autodesk.
However, as OSGeo has grown, OSGeo has slowly evolved toward a low capital volunteer focused organisation. Our overheads are very low, which means we waste very little of our volunteer labour and capital on the time consuming task of chasing and managing money. Consequently, any money we do receive (from conference windfalls or sponsorship) goes a long way - as it doesn't get eaten up by high overheads.
Size and Titles
Within small communities influence is based around meritocracy and do-ocracy. Good ideas bubble to the top and those who do the work decide what work gets done. Leaders who try to pull rank in order to gain influence quickly lose volunteers. Within these small communities, a person’s title hold little tradable value.
However, our OSGeo community has grown very large, upward of tens of thousands of people. At this size, we often can’t use our personal relationships to assess reputation and trust. Instead we need to rely on other cues, such as titles and allocated positions of power.
Consider also that OSGeo projects have become widely adopted. As such, knowledge and influence within an OSGeo community has become a valuable commodity. It helps land a job; secure a speaking slot at a conference; or get an academic paper published.
This introduces a commercial dynamic into our volunteer power structures:
  • A title is sometimes awarded to a dedicated volunteer, hoping that it can be traded for value within the commercial economy. (In practice, deriving value from a title is much harder than it sounds).
  • There are both altruistic and personal reasons for someone to obtain a title. A title can be used to improve the effectiveness of the volunteer; or to improve the volunteers financial opportunities.
  • This can prompt questions of a volunteer’s motivations.
In response to this, over the years we have seen a gradual change to position of roles within the OSGeo community.
Top-down vs bottom-up
OSGeo board candidates have been asked for their “vision”, and “what they would like to change or introduce”. https://wiki.osgeo.org/wiki/Election_2017_Candidate_Manifestos  These are valid questions if OSGeo were run as a command-and-control top-down hierarchy; if board made decisions were delegated to OSGeo committees to implement. But OSGeo is bottom-up.
Boards which attempt to centralise control and delegate tasks cause resentment and disengagement amongst volunteers. Likewise, communities who try to delegate tasks to their leaders merely burn out their leaders. Both are ignoring the principles of Do-ocracy and Merit-ocracy. So ironically, boards which do less are often helping more.
Darwinian evolution means that only awesome ideas and inspiring leaders attract volunteer attention - and that is a good thing.
Recognising ineffective control attempts
How do you recognise ineffective command-and-control techniques within a volunteer community? Look for statements such as:
  • “The XXX committee needs to do YYY…”
  • “Why isn’t anyone helping us do …?”
  • “The XXX community hasn’t completed YYY requirements - we need to tell them to implement ZZZ”
If all the ideas from an organisation come from management, then management isn’t listening to their team.
Power to the people
In most cases the board should keep out of the way of OSGeo communities. Only in exceptional circumstances should a board override volunteer initiatives.
Decisions and power within OSGeo should be moved back into OSGeo committees, chapters and projects. This empowers our community, and motivates volunteers wishing to scratch an itch.
We do want our board members to be enlightened, motivated and engaged within OSGeo. This active engagement should be done within OSGeo communities: partaking, facilitating or mentoring as required. A recent example of this was Jody Garnett’s active involvement with OSGeo rebranding - where he worked with others within the OSGeo marketing committee.
Democratising key decisions
While we have a charter membership of nearly 400 who are tasked with ‘protecting’ the principles of the foundation and voting for new charter members and the board. Beyond this, charter members have had little way of engaging with the board to influence the direction of OSGeo.
How can we balance the signal-to-noise ratio such that we can achieve effective membership engagement with the board without overwhelming ourselves with chatter? Currently we have no formal or prescribed processes for such consultation.
Reimbursement
OSGeo Board members are not paid for their services. However, they are regularly invited to partake in activities such as presenting at conferences or participating in meetings with other organisations. These are typically beneficial to both OSGeo and the leader’s reputation or personal interest. To avoid OSGeo Board membership being seen as a “Honey Pot”, and for the Board to maintain trust and integrity, OSGeo board members should refuse payment from OSGeo for partaking in such activities. (There is nothing wrong with accepting payment from another organisation, such as the conference organisers.)
In response to the question of conferences, OSGeo has previously created OSGeo Advocates - an extensive list of local volunteers from around the world willing to talk about OSGeo. https://wiki.osgeo.org/wiki/OSGeo_Advocate
Old vs new
Should we populate our board with old wisdom or encourage fresh blood and new ideas? We ideally want a bit of both, bring wisdom from the past, but also spreading the opportunity of leadership across our membership. We should avoid leadership becoming an exclusive “boys club” without active community involvement, and possibly should consider maximum terms for board members.
If our leadership follow a “hands off oversight role”, then past leaders can still play influential roles within OSGeo’s subcommittees.
Vision for OSGeo 2.0
Prior OSGeo thought leaders have suggested it’s time to grow from OSGeo 1.0 to OSGeo 2.0; time to update our vision and mission.  A few of those ideas have fed into OSGeo’s website revamp currently underway. This has been a good start, but there is still room to acknowledge that much has changed since OSGeo was born a decade ago, and there are plenty of opportunities to positively redefine ourselves.
A test of OSGeo’s effectiveness is to see how well community ideas are embraced and taken through to implementation. This is a challenge that I hope will attract new energy and new ideas from a new OSGeo generation.
Here are a few well considered ideas that have been presented to date that we can start from:
Recommendations
So where does this leave us.
  • Let’s recognise that OSGeo is an Open Source community, and we organise ourselves best with bottom-up Meritocracy and Do-ocracy.
  • Wherever possible, decisions should be made at the committee, chapter or project level, with the board merely providing hands-off oversight. This empowers and enables our sub-communities.
  • Let’s identify strategic topics where the OSGeo board would benefit from consultation with charter membership and work out how this could be accomplished efficiently and effectively.
  • Let’s embrace and encourage new blood into our leadership ranks, while retaining access to our wise old white beards.  
  • The one top-down task for the board is based around allocation of OSGeo’s (minimal) budget.

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