About Leadership

In the course of the license change, a process that is now thankfully nearing completion, some have portrayed the OSMF board as a power hungry and self-absorbed club trying to exert control over OSM.

I think this is exaggerated. But it is an interesting opportunity to discuss who should be running OSM(F), and how.

There was an event called WhereCampTB a couple months ago, from which someone sent this tweet, potentially a quote from one of the talks given there:

@openstreetmap too big to fail? Board has duty to respond to changes and broaden shareholders & contributors.

Obviously, this is coming from someone who has not understood our mantra that OSMF board should be supporting, not controlling the project. This is someone who believes that OSMF is “running” OSM, that the foundation somehow controls who the shareholders and contributors are. Such thinking is common in OSM outsiders – they look at OSM and they find all the idiosyncratic bits that we’ve collected over time and their gut reaction is “someone should clean this up thoroughly”.

It is a thought less common, but still occasionally present in long time OSMers – I’ve mentioned people hoping for stricter tagging rules and so on in an earlier post.

And coming back to my introductory paragraph – yes, there might be the occasional individual who has read a management book some time and now believes that they must “lead” OpenStreetMap like you would lead a startup company. But I think these people are only reacting to the outside perception that a project like OSM must have a leader of sorts, a visionary individual (or group of individuals) at the helm who make the big decisions.

(I don’t know if everyone defines leadership like I do here; the kind of leadership I discuss here does have an element of control and exclusivity. If your definition of leadership is more like “many people can lead and everyone can decide whether they follow, and whom” then what I write will not make sense. When people say that OSMF should lead OSM they usually mean that such leadership comes from entitlement – nobody else can do it – and that there is no question that the leaders define the course of the project.)

I quite enjoyed reading a recent article by Joel Spolsky, a software engineer and writer and one of the guys behind Stack Overflow. It is called The Management Team and it’s about managing IT startups. Even though I’m usually adamant that a nonprofit like OSM is a completely different kind of organisation than a business startup, I found some marvels that I believe apply to OSM:

Thus, the upside-down pyramid. Stop thinking of the management team at the top of the organization. Start thinking of the software developers, the designers, …, as the top of the organization.

The “management team” isn’t the “decision making” team. It’s a support function. You may want to call them administration instead of management, which will keep them from getting too big for their britches.

Administrators aren’t supposed to make the hard decisions. They don’t know enough. All those super genius computer scientists that you had to recruit from MIT at great expense are supposed to make the hard decisions. That’s why you’re paying them. Administrators exist to move the furniture around so that the people at the top of the tree can make the hard decisions.

This is a little how I’d like to see the OSMF (minus the “paying” bit maybe) – as administrators, as moving the furniture around so that the brilliant people who do all the work don’t have to bother with that.

I’ve been thinking that OSMF should be more like a talent scout, a catalyst, or a matchmaker. I think that there are lots of great people in OSM and on its margins, people who each have part of what is needed: Some have a machine with connectivity, some have an interesting problem, some have brains, some have money. But despite the many means of communication we have in OSM, they often don’t find each other – or they suffer from the misconception that they somehow need to go through OSMF.

Jochen and I have gone through a time where almost everything that was done in the German community went through us, one way or the other, because people had come to expect us being involved, and if we were not involved then it probably wasn’t the good/right/proper thing. At one point we decided to stay out of lots of things on purpose just so that people learned that it was perfectly ok to organise a hack weekend without asking us first. Of course we felt honoured to be considered important, but there was no way we could do all the things that were necessary, or even coordinate them.

If someone is unhappy about an aspect of OSM and their thought process goes anything like “OSMF board needs to X”, then they’re either to lazy to do it themselves, or they hope that board’s blessing will absolve them from responsibility vis-a-vis the community.

We can’t expect OSMF board to lead or even manage the project – that would not only be beyond the capabilities of a bunch of volunteers who have day jobs, families, and maybe even other hobbies besides mapping and coding for OSM, it would also be beyond OSMF’s mandate. But what OSMF can do is help create an atmosphere in which people feel confident to just do things, and help people find each other – match the guy with the clever idea with another person who has the hosting capability. Hook up the company wanting to spend a little of their sponsorship budget on OSM with a couple of enthusiasts who build something that benefits us all (and tell the corporate guys that yes, it’s ok to work with the community, you don’t need to go to lunch with OSMF board execs before you can do something for OSM).

If you’ve read this far then you have understood that I’m a proponent of “small OSMF” – an organisation with very little power and very little resources, just (to borrow another old OSM mantra) “the simplest thing that could possibly work”. I abhor the idea of large and powerful organisations controlling volunteer work; and I mostly do so because of the question of governance. As long as you have a small organisation with little clout and a small budget run by volunteers, there’s not much use in fighting over control of it. If you are a member of OSMF board today, then even if you were a crook, your options of manipulating OSM into doing something, or furthering your own business, or of creating a nice and well-funded post for yourself are rather slim and it’s unlikely to be worth the effort.

Now you might say, and I know that many of my countrymen will, that even a large and influentual OSMF could benefit the project if properly overseen and run in a democratic fashion. Have an elected board, get some funding, hire an executive director and a few technicians, and off we go. If OSMF is more or less just the “voice of the project” determined by democratic processes and elections, then what can possibly go wrong?

Robert Michels, a German sociologist of the early 20th century, wrote down the answer to this, and called it the Iron Law of Oligarchy. What this essentially says is that, even if you have the best intentions, any large organisation will sooner or later become encrusted in bureaucracy and controlled by an entrenched elite:

Michels stressed several factors that underlie the Iron Law of Oligarchy. Darcy K. Leach summarized them briefly as: “Bureaucracy happens. If bureaucracy happens, power rises. Power corrupts.” Any large organization, Michels pointed out, has to create a bureaucracy in order to maintain its efficiency as it becomes larger – many decisions have to be made daily that cannot be made by large numbers of disorganized people. For the organization to function effectively, centralization has to occur and power will end up in the hands of a few. Those few – the oligarchy – will use all means necessary to preserve and further increase their power.

Michel’s work is a century old but I’ve seen his “iron law” alive and kicking in more than one organisation that I was involved with in the past. I think that diversity, plurality, and openness are what have made OSM great and I wouldn’t want to see it ruined by a band of “leaders”. OSMF should remain the small-scale organisation it is today, and be very clear about the fact that OSMF is a tiny little part of the OSM universe, and in no way “leading OSM”.

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