January 2010

"...success comes entirely from people and the system within which they work. Results are not the point. Developing the people and the system so that together they are capable of achieving successful results is the point."

Leading Lean Software Development

Recently, that quote stirred some controversy among my peers. The part about "results are not the point" was hard for some people to understand and come to grips with. Aren't results always the point? Well, as with most things, "It depends". The people and community that evolve around an open source software project will ultimately determine its success. Even if the core team launches the project with spectacular productivity and results, this phase of evolution will be fleeting if the necessary processes and community to make the project a long lasting success are not put into place.

This article presents some of the actions open source community leaders can take to ensure not only results, but a system that encourages productivity and longevity.

The Law of Attraction

One of the fundamental principles of nature is that objects tend to attract other like objects. The term homophily refers to the tendency of individuals to associate and bond with others of a similar bent. This same principle of attraction is what pulls communities together and keeps them together. People are attracted to others that have similar interests or problems to overcome. It is that commonality that creates the link, the attraction, that holds communities together.

Unfortunately, many projects and businesses forget this basic principle. They instead believe that communities form around products, brands or buzzwords. They forget that people want to belong to groups that they share some interest with. Providing a shared interest doesn't necessarily translate into building a vibrant, action oriented community. In order for a community organizer to stimulate results in a community, the following ingredients are needed:

  • a mission that will attract others that are passionate because ...

  • passionate users create excitement for a cause and ...

  • excitement elicits action and results from the community

The goal is not simply to build software but to attract users that share a passion for a particular subject. It is this belief in the cause that will ultimately determine whether or not a community is successful.


Leaders are people who see the world from a different and new perspective. Leaders dream of a future that is different from today. A leader's vision of tomorrow is inspiring and solves real problems for real people. But leadership goes beyond this by introducing others to a future that they can embrace as their own. The ability to make the vision their own is what draws people to an open source project and moves them to action.

How does a leader craft a message that resonates with the community? Listening is the key that unlocks not only the problems of the users but also their perspective. Leaders must understand where the pain points are and what motivates users. A leader's goal is to provide just enough of a blueprint for tomorrow so that users are able to finish crafting the story for themselves. This gives them ownership and enthusiasm to solve the problem.

This quote from the French writer and aviator, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, is especially important for community managers as it relates to creating a vision of the future that people believe in and want to become a part of: "If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea."

The other aspect of leadership that is often overlooked is the art of coalition building. As the message begins to resonate within a community and adapts to each user’s needs, leaders need to manage the alternate messages that form within the community. Leaders have to continually revise the vision to include any new or divisive stories that develop. New leaders will emerge within the community that could have agendas that differ significantly from the original vision. These leaders may eventually harm the community if their ideas are not embraced early on and elements of their story are incorporated. Embracing and incorporating input builds a stronger community and additional leaders to help within the project. The community will be stronger with them than without them.

In Community We Trust

Trust influences nearly every interaction we have during any given day. Every communication, every action, every conversation is shaped in some way by the trust and reputation inferred on the interacting party. Trust is the currency that communities, both online and offline, trade in. Without trust, lasting relationships can not be built or maintained. Part of a community leader's job is to build reputation and trust for the people associated with a community.

Trust is not something you can ask for as it is earned through actions and competence. It defines relationships between people, governments, communities, and businesses. The text book definition of trust is “…reliance on the integrity, ability, or character of a person or entity”. You can rely on someone or something when you have a history of past experiences by which you can infer future experiences. Without these past experiences, people have no way to place you within their trust metric. They resort to lumping you in with “the rest” or basing their trust on any reputation you may have.

As a community leader, you must build trust in you and your project. People trust people who get things done. If you say you’re going to do something and never quite get around to it, your reputation will suffer and hence the community’s trust in you. Remember, actions always speak louder than words.

Any Fool Can Criticize

Benjamin Franklin once said that "Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain, and most fools do". One of the things that keeps people from getting involved in open communities is a fear of criticism. Criticism that they'll ask the wrong questions and criticism that they'll do something wrong. There are probably dozens of reasons people are afraid to participate and they almost always relate to being afraid of something. It is a leader's job to see that the community is a hospitable place for new people to participate.

Many project veterans may not have the patience to allow foolish questions to pepper the project's mailing lists or forums. They think that everyone should put in the same due diligence they did to understand the project and its code. But, if you want the community to grow, you will need to set the example of always having a cool temperament, even with newcomers who may not have done their homework before asking a question. This is not to suggest that you coddle newcomers, but that you need to ensure that responses to questions are civil.


Mary Kay noted that "There are two things that people want more than money and sex...recognition and praise". Especially early on, you'll need to work hard to ensure that every little contribution to the project is warmly welcomed. This may mean that you have to work with contributors to rewrite a patch or help them fill out a bug report. The name of the game is getting people to open up and get involved. This typically involves coaxing and lots of encouragement.

Don't be afraid to recognize new participants and draw attention to their accomplishments. If you are constantly praising your community users and helping them feel good about the work they are doing, you will find that members have a greater sense of responsibility towards your community efforts. Greater responsibility equals more action which results in a productive community. Communities run on recognition. This doesn’t mean that you need a user rating system or a User of the Month classification. You simply need to express honest gratitude publicly for what community members are doing. Try it and you’ll notice a remarkable difference in how the community starts behaving.

Simplify, Simplify

Henry David Thoreau once said, "Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify". He was expressing a concern with the complexity of life while encouraging people to strip away the unnecessary and to focus on the important. Communities sometimes forget that they have to present themselves in pure and simple terms in order to grow. The message must be simple. The ability to communicate should be simple. The tools must be simple. This is not because people can’t understand complexity, it is because they don’t have the time to. In order to grow a community, concentrate on the most important elements that have an impact. Simplify as many things as possible to get to what truly makes your community unique and beneficial.

An example of where projects sometimes fail in this area is by creating too many options for member communication. Don’t implement every communication technology you can find as that will only make it harder for your members to find and participate in conversations. Communication tools should help your members to communicate, not distract them with choices. You should ask a single question when analyzing your community’s tool choices: "Will this technology facilitate human interactions?". Always remember that communities are about people, not technology, and that simpler communication strategies are usually better.

Blog, Baby, Blog

With the move to social networking sites like Facebook.com and Twitter.com, the buzz around maintaining a blog has diminished. However, blogging is still one of the easiest and best ways to reach an audience with a message. Twitter and Facebook are important tools to help connect your project with a larger audience, but blogging is still the best way to create thought leadership around a project's mission and vision of the future. When blogging, show your passion for your subject.

Blogging about what you are doing is only the first step as you still have to attract people to the blog. Fortunately, blogs rank high in Google's PageRank algorithm. The key with Google is not to go after the first page of results for a generic term like "collaboration" or even "collaboration software", but to find a search term that still gets a decent amount of traction. In the case of collaboration software, it is far easier to reach the first page of Google results for "collaboration community of practice" or "collaboration success" than for just "collaboration". When you title your blog, use the search terms you want to be found under, such as "Creating Communities of Practice Through Collaboration".

Don't just focus your outbound marketing on Google. Start investing in Twitter and Facebook to grow an audience for your message. These tools may not be the best for articulating your project's value proposition and mission, but they are great for helping you find pockets of users who share your passion. Make sure that you are following and joining groups that have users who are attracted to the same problems and passions as your project and make sure you let these groups know when you've posted something on your blog. The key to using social networks is that you have to add value to your network by helping them solve their problems without becoming a marketing drone for your project.

Work With Other Projects

Being an active and productive citizen of other projects is a great way to introduce users to your project or solution. If you have a reputation for helping others and contributing to projects, people will be happy to lend a hand when you need it. You may even already have some followers if you are actively participating in other communities. I recently heard the founders of GitHub.com talk about their startup experiences at the Open Source Bridge conference. They specifically mentioned their involvement with the Ruby on Rails community as one of the reasons GitHub had a successful beginning. If that’s not a testament to playing well in the sandbox, nothing is.

Wrap Up

Building a community of passionate users is no small task. If you manage to do it, you will have worked harder than you ever have in your life because community building is a process that never stops. That is why it is so important to tap into a passion--not only the passion of a large set of users, but also your passion. The work is long and hard and often doesn't seem fruitful, but if you stick with it and let your passion for the project and the problem you are solving shine through, you'll do just fine.


Share this article:

Cite this article:

Rate This Content: 
No votes have been cast yet. Have your say!