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Does your open source project have a succession plan for its key players? Here's why it should.
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The FSF was founded in 1985, Perl in 1987 (happy 30th birthday, Perl!), and Linux in 1991. The term open source and the Open Source Initiative both came into being in 1998 (and turn 20 years old in 2018). Since then, free and open source software has grown to become the default choice for software development, enabling incredible innovation.

We, the greater open source community, have come of age. Millions of open source projects exist today, and each year the GitHub Octoverse reports millions of new public repositories. We rely on these projects every day, and many of us could not operate our services or our businesses without them.

So what happens when the leaders of these projects move on? How can we help ease those transitions while ensuring that the projects thrive? By teaching and encouraging succession planning.

What is succession planning?

Succession planning is a popular topic among business executives, boards of directors, and human resources professionals, but it doesn't often come up with maintainers of free and open source projects. Because the concept is common in business contexts, that's where you'll find most resources and advice about establishing a succession plan. As you might expect, most of these articles aren't directly applicable to FOSS, but they do form a springboard from which we can launch our own ideas about succession planning.

According to Wikipedia:

Succession planning is a process for identifying and developing new leaders who can replace old leaders when they leave, retire, or die.

In my opinion, this definition doesn't apply very well to free and open source software projects. I primarily object to the use of the term leaders. For the collaborative projects of FOSS, everyone can be some form of leader. Roles other than "project founder" or "benevolent dictator for life" are just as important. Any project role that is measured by bus factor is one that can benefit from succession planning.

A project's bus factor is the number of team members who, if hit by a bus, would endanger the smooth operation of the project. The smallest and worst bus factor is 1: when only a single person's loss would put the project in jeopardy. It's a somewhat grim but still very useful concept.

I propose that instead of viewing succession planning as a leadership pipeline, free and open source projects should view it as a skills pipeline. What sorts of skills does your project need to continue functioning well, and how can you make sure those skills always exist in your community?

Benefits of succession planning

When I talk to project maintainers about succession planning, they often respond with something like, "We've been pretty successful so far without having to think about this. Why should we start now?"

Aside from the fact that the phrase, "We've always done it this way" is probably one of the most dangerous in the English language, and hearing (or saying) it should send up red flags in any community, succession planning provides plenty of very real benefits:

  • Continuity: When someone leaves, what happens to the tasks they were performing? Succession planning helps ensure those tasks continue uninterrupted and no one is left hanging.
  • Avoiding a power vacuum: When a person leaves a role with no replacement, it can lead to confusion, delays, and often most damaging, political woes. After all, it's much easier to fix delays than hurt feelings. A succession plan helps alleviate the insecure and unstable time when someone in a vital role moves on.
  • Increased project/organization longevity: The thinking required for succession planning is the same sort of thinking that contributes to project longevity. Ensuring continuity in leadership, culture, and productivity also helps ensure the project will continue. It will evolve, but it will survive.
  • Reduced workload/pressure on current leaders: When a single team member performs a critical role in the project, they often feel pressure to be constantly "on." This can lead to burnout and worse, resignations. A succession plan ensures that all important individuals have a backup or successor. The knowledge that someone can take over is often enough to reduce the pressure, but it also means that key players can take breaks or vacations without worrying that their role will be neglected in their absence.
  • Talent development: Members of the FOSS community talk a lot about mentoring these days, and that's great. However, most of the conversation is around mentoring people to contribute code to a project. There are many different ways to contribute to free and open source software projects beyond programming. A robust succession plan recognizes these other forms of contribution and provides mentoring to prepare people to step into critical non-programming roles.
  • Inspiration for new members: It can be very motivational for new or prospective community members to see that a project uses its succession plan. Not only does it show them that the project is well-organized and considers its own health and welfare as well as that of its members, but it also clearly shows new members how they can grow in the community. An obvious path to critical roles and leadership positions inspires new members to stick around to walk that path.
  • Diversity of thoughts/get out of a rut: Succession plans provide excellent opportunities to bring in new people and ideas to the critical roles of a project. Studies show that diverse leadership teams are more effective and the projects they lead are more innovative. Using your project's succession plan to mentor people from different backgrounds and with different perspectives will help strengthen and evolve the project in a healthy way.
  • Enabling meritocracy: Unfortunately, what often passes for meritocracy in many free and open source projects is thinly veiled hostility toward new contributors and diverse opinions—hostility that's delivered from within an echo chamber. Meritocracy without a mentoring program and healthy governance structure is simply an excuse to practice subjective discrimination while hiding behind unexpressed biases. A well-executed succession plan helps teams reach the goal of a true meritocracy. What counts as merit for any given role, and how to reach that level of merit, are openly, honestly, and completely documented. The entire community will be able to see and judge which members are on the path or deserve to take on a particular critical role.

Why it doesn't happen

Succession planning isn't a panacea, and it won't solve all problems for all projects, but as described above, it offers a lot of worthwhile benefits to your project.

Despite that, very few free and open source projects or organizations put much thought into it. I was curious why that might be, so I asked around. I learned that the reasons for not having a succession plan fall into one of five different buckets:

  • Too busy: Many people recognize succession planning (or lack thereof) as a problem for their project but just "hadn't ever gotten around to it" because there's "always something more important to work on." I understand and sympathize with this, but I suspect the problem may have more to do with prioritization than with time availability.
  • Don't think of it: Some people are so busy and preoccupied that they haven't considered, "Hey, what would happen if Jen had to leave the project?" This never occurs to them. After all, Jen's always been there when they need her, right? And that will always be the case, right?
  • Don't want to think of it: Succession planning shares a trait with estate planning: It's associated with negative feelings like loss and can make people address their own mortality. Some people are uncomfortable with this and would rather not consider it at all than take the time to make the inevitable easier for those they leave behind.
  • Attitude of current leaders: A few of the people with whom I spoke didn't want to recognize that they're replaceable, or to consider that they may one day give up their power and influence on the project. While this was (thankfully) not a common response, it was alarming enough to deserve its own bucket. Failure of someone in a critical role to recognize or admit that they won't be around forever can set a project up for failure in the long run.
  • Don't know where to start: Many people I interviewed realize that succession planning is something that their project should be doing. They were even willing to carve out the time to tackle this very large task. What they lacked was any guidance on how to start the process of creating a succession plan.

As you can imagine, something as important and people-focused as a succession plan isn't easy to create, and it doesn't happen overnight. Also, there are many different ways to do it. Each project has its own needs and critical roles. One size does not fit all where succession plans are concerned.

There are, however, some guidelines for how every project could proceed with the succession plan creation process. I'll cover these guidelines in my next article.

VM Brasseur profile photo
VM (aka Vicky) spent most of her 20 years in the tech industry leading software development departments and teams, and providing technical management and leadership consulting for small and medium businesses.

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