The Decline and Fall of the Idealistic Spark

What can kill a community that was once bound together by a shared vision?

Once upon a time, there was a man who had an innovative idea. He had a vision, and followed up with an answer could solve a set of real world problems. Fortunately, he also found a way to communicate the solution to other people. Others got involved, either because they bought into the idealistic plans ("With this idea, we can change the world, and make it a better place!") or because they saw pragmatic opportunities ("I can make a living by selling this stuff"). People worked together; not always smoothly, but with a shared common goal. A small team grew into a larger one, and then an even larger one, and eventually into a huge organization impacting millions, maybe billions of dollars.

[ See also: Convincing the Boss to Accept FOSS]

But as the organization grew, the spark of creativity sputtered. What was once fun became business-as-usual. What was business-as-usual became cut-throat. The original visionary began to believe the press releases of his marketing department and forgot others's contributions; at a minimum, he became distant from the needs of the "real people" whom he'd once sincerely wanted to serve. Many years later, insiders (if not outsiders) saw the rot at the core: an organization driven by political power, run by people whose ethics were questionable-at-best, generating shoddy "solutions" that were far more polished than the initial offerings but also far less satsifying. Today, many people are comfortable in describing the organization as evil; yet the individuals I've encountered who work for the organization are just as convinced that their answer is Right as they ever were, and some of them are brilliant people who never lost the idealistic belief that they're making the world a better place.

No, I'm not speaking of Microsoft. (This is an open source blog, so I won't be surprised if that was your first guess.) My word picture describes an organization I initially encountered as a genuine effort to help people spiritually, and which my mother (and maybe you) today would label as a cult.

The sad fact is that human history is littered with such failures of personal power and thus failures of organizational effectiveness. Almost every big change in human history has been led by someone with a great new big idea, whether that's a spiritual enhancement, a business model, or a technology innovation. My description could apply to any of hundreds of once-idealistic efforts led by men and women who believed their business-not-as-usual answer is a (or more commonly the or the only) right answer to solve a perceived weakness.

Open source certainly fulfills the initial qualities: a group of dedicated people who truly want to make the world a better place, and who address themselves to communicating its benefits. I want open source to succeed, so I have heightened my awareness to Things That Can Go Wrong. Perhaps this is because I am essentially a worry wart; maybe it's because I watched the earlier organization crumble. (And no, I'm not going to mention what organization it is, so don't bother asking.)

I'm not the only person to get worked up about such things. The first time I interviewed Mark Shuttleworth, we discussed my earlier career as an OS/2 activist, and the ways in which Team OS/2 fell apart. Shuttleworth asked me if Linux could fail in the same way OS/2 did. No, I said—not in the same way. But both of us certainly have our community-sensors tuned to things that could lead to failure.

So I found myself moaning: When teams and organizations work, they are the most wonderful things. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that there is nothing as rewarding as the certainty that you're improving the quality of life for the people around you, and few highs as wonderful as working with people who share your vision.

But when the teams and organizations fail... why is it so damned easy to head into evil? Why is it so easy for us humans to agree only on that which is destructive, and for goals-and-purposes to be lost, even among people who share the highest purposes?

"One seldom discovers a true believer that is worth knowing."—H.L. Mencken

One "obvious" answer which I reject is that as the organization grows, money becomes an issue — and greed follows. In my experience, it's a lot harder to manage a volunteer organization (whether that's an open source community or a model railroad club) because people are not paid in cash. People (especially managers) understand the motivation of money, and that which it brings. It's pretty easy to control people when everyone knows "If you don't work, you don't eat." They often don't recognize the effects of people being paid in other ways... such as personal power or bragging-rights or the satisfaction of Making A Difference... and thus the people at the top don't manage those contributors as well as they might.

Perhaps I can't come up with an objective answer to how the idealistic spark sputters, only to be replaced, without anybody noticing, by a cultish gleam. But as tuned as I am to the process, I've given a bit of thought to the early-warning signals that a group is on its way down that path. Unfortunately most of the books on the damage caused by cults and the sites that describe how cults work assume ill intent (on the part of someone) and rarely acknowledge the higher goal. They only recognize the state after it's well-established and (at least in the Anti-this-organization viewpoint) harming its members.

I have, however, noticed several signs that an organization is moving towards cult status, or at least towards self-destruction. Among them:

  • They lose the ability to laugh at themselves. If people are afraid to make a joke at the organization's expense because they're afraid to offend somebody — worry. If you listen carefully, you can hear a note of stridency in conversations.

  • People become less important than the goal. This is a key point; everything becomes serious instead of a joyful exercise in sharing knowlege and helping one another. Organizationally, it means that the goals are subservient to the process. In computing terms, it means that the "purity" of open source (whatever the heck that might be) is more important than the users or than creating useful software that helps others.
  • The world is increasingly divided into "us" and "them." And "them" is not acceptable unless they see the universe from our worldview. Early in the organization's history, the "better way" meant only that people had a choice, and that "we" couldn't wait until others discovered and appreciated the alternative. There's no such thing as an enemy, to the idealists, just those who are as-yet-unaware of this WayCool Neat Thing We Have.

    Bit by bit, the attitude shifts from "Hey folks, take a look at this great alternative" to "If you don't accept our answer as the only answer, there's something seriously wrong with you." (This is the point at which your family sighs and rolls their eyes.) As an organization makes the ever-so-subtle transition towards cult status, someone is cast as a villain and activities to "destroy the enemy" gain value. People fail to see "destroy the enemy" as the distraction it is — but the primary victims are the group's goal and the group's membership. This is also the point at which the organization loses its effectiveness, because the participants (or at least its leaders) no longer recognize the difference between criticism that has merit (and thus respond appropriately) and overt destructive attacks. (I'm not saying that organizations don't ever have enemies, after all. Though in a healthy environment we call these "competitors.")

    In smaller-scope cases, such as community groups that fall apart, the "enemy" may be within the club; we call them "political factions." This is a recipe for either a mass exodus or a coup. The latter can be a good thing because the usual intent is to re-calibrate on the goals (but I might be biased, as on more than one occasion I've led the coup). One of the things that open source has going for it, on a granular project-by-project basis, is that it's socially acceptable to fork a project; but I'm not sure if a fork ever occurs without pain.

Healthy organizations have dissension and disagreement. The healthiest encourage it, and make it safe for people to raise objections so that everyone's opinions matter. That works as long as the leadership actually responds to the members, instead of saying, "Sure, you can say whatever you like. We'll listen. Then we'll ignore it and do what we were going to do anyway."

The tipping point is when the organization and its leaders are Always Right, even when they're wrong. The problem with overt self-confidence is that it creates a culture wherein the leaders have no responsibility towards the membership and the community-at-large. A organization that never says, "We were wrong. We will fix this. We will change our behavior to avoid the recurrence of this problem, and we will look for the cause" — whether that happens in a small open source project or at Microsoft or a [Pick a Famous Cult You Love To Hate] — will always crumble from within. Some companies and organizations learn the lessons of their arrogance — we could argue who ought to be on that list — and survive. But that, too, comes at a painful cost.

I'm probably too personally tied to this subject to wrap this up with a pretty bow and a pollyanna "But everything will be all right" closing paragraph. I've watched too many groups I care about self-destruct, and usually they have no idea how the dynamite was laid much less who lit the fuse. So instead I'll ask you if you can identify any additional warning signs that a group is headed full-tilt into destruction. Got ideas to add? Paste them in the comments below.

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