Open Thread Thursday: Who needs managers, anyway?

Image by
submit to reddit
(3 votes)

Gary Hamel, one of the world's leading business thinkers, has said that open source is one of the greatest management innovations of the 21st century.

In his outstanding book The Future of Management, Hamel offered this tongue-in-cheek remark:

"A few years back, who would have dared believe that it would one day be possible to develop complex software with a community of volunteers and virtually no managers? Seems that the hackers who invented the open source process were simply too dumb to know that you can't manage without managers."

What do you think? Some might argue this isn't sustainable in the real world. Do you agree? And how could you make it work?

Creative Commons License


Steve Lee's picture

OSS Watch have just published 3 introductory documents about the important topic of governance models for open source projects. We also provided templates for projects to use with minimum fuss. Management without managers?

We are also developing our support for open innovation in software.

Steve Lee
OSS Watch

cgrams's picture
Open Source Champion

I read the oss governance model blog post this morning... fantastic... might even be worth sending some of these ideas to our elected officials:)

dragonbite's picture
Open Minded

Just because somebody does or doesn't have a title, or the official position of "manager" doesn't mean that a personallity hasn't come forward (conciously or subconciously) to take that role? It could be one person or actually a collection of people filling in different aspects of the role.

This just sounds like the perpetuation of seeing open source as an unruly mob of adolescent basement dwelling techno-rebels. Open source has grown up a lot in the past few years and while that image still fits some projects it is not an accurate picture.

Ryan Campbell's picture

The point is OSS project organization is (generally) emergent. People emerge to do the work by simply doing it. If they are helpful, other people begin to trust them. In a healthy project, this trust eventually results in explicit authority and responsibilities. This is called leadership.

In traditional management structures, authority is granted from the top down regardless of any existing trust or respect. This is what most people would call a manager. Managers may also be leaders, but this is depressingly rare.

Given the nature of authority in OSS projects, and the role of the traditional manager, it is unsurprising that these projects generally don't have managers, but they do have leaders.

cgrams's picture
Open Source Champion

What I think the open source movement has in spades that the typical corporate environment often lacks (or certainly doesn't cultivate well) is leadership. I think there is a big difference between a leadership culture and a management culture.

In most corporations, management = status = power. The people who have the most people working for them have the loudest voices in the direction of the organization.

In many open source projects, the people who 1) have good ideas or 2) do stuff, have the status and power. And the people who have good ideas and do stuff tend to have lots of folks start to follow them.

Management becomes a side effect of leadership, rather than the other way around.

In many businesses there are people in management positions who are also put in leadership positions by default, not because they have ideas or do stuff, but because they have a lot of people working for them.

In fact many of these folks neither have ideas nor do stuff. It is sad. It is bureaucracy. And it is damage that the OSS movement has done a pretty good job of routing around, in my opinion.

dragonbite's picture
Open Minded

Sometimes it is the Entrepenuer spirit (or leadership) that gets people into these positions, but that spirit may not translate into good Management skills.

Ryan Campbell's picture

I wish I had read your post before I spent 20 minutes writing mine.

Badtux's picture

Open Source projects which do not have strong leadership fail.
Commercial projects which do not have strong leadership fail.

I've been in both situations -- Open Source and commercial -- and software development is software development, in the end. Any successful software development project of any scale other than a one-off one-person utility has some sort of leadership hierarchy where various people are in charge of various parts of the project and where there's a mechanism to insure that only high-quality code that complies with the general architectural vision of the project makes it into the project. Projects which do not develop this sort of leadership hierarchy fail -- they devolve into squabbles, or their architecture degenerates into such a mess that the project can't be successfully completed without a total re-write from scratch and a reboot. And if the quality of the people who make it into positions of being in charge is low, the project fails too, because the code base turns into a mess of buffer overflows, memory leaks, and unreadable/unfixable code.

Whether you call these people "managers", "gatekeepers", "leaders", whatever, software development is software development and leadership is leadership. If you have good leadership, your project succeeds. If you don't, it fails, or is so late to market and such a low-performing mess that you might as well don't bother. That's how it's always been, whether Open Source or commercial is irrelevant. The only real difference is that Open Source contributors won't put up with pure BS as is typical in huge corporations. But that sort of BS is not typical in the small startup environment either, which shares a lot in common with Open Source.