Gaining influence in the open organization

Earning, spending, saving: The currency of influence in open source

In open organizations, people gain influence primarily through contribution—not formal title or position in a hierarchy. To make an impact in yours, start here.

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The acquisition and application of influence is a vital aspect of any organization. But the manner in which people acquire influence can vary widely. In traditional, hierarchical organizations, for example, someone might acquire influence by virtue of their title or position in a hierarchy. In government organizations, someone might acquire influence by virtue of being elected. On social media, someone might acquire influence through endless self-promotion. Or someone might acquire influence through inheritance or wealth.

In open source communities, influence operates differently. It can't be bought, inherited, elected through a ballot, bestowed through a job title, or gained through celebrity. In this world, influence must be earned through the merit of the contributions one makes to a team, organization, or community.

In open organizations—which often look to open source communities as models for a more dynamic, inclusive, and innovative way to operate, as Jim Whitehurst explains in The Open Organizationinfluence operates the same way. "Everyone has the ability to earn influence and to get his or her ideas heard," Whitehurst writes. "It simply related to how effective you are at presenting and getting people behind your ideas, throughout the organization." So anyone hoping to succeed in an open organization must understand how to acquire, manage, and leverage influence in ways that may not come naturally to them.

In this two-part series, we'll draw on our experiences in open source software development to examine the mechanics of influence in open organizations. In this installment, we'll explain how influence is acquired in an open organization. We'll also offer advice on ways one might earn influence in these organizations—and some tips on behaviors to avoid.

The currency of influence

Even though you can't buy it, influence behaves like a form of virtual currency in an open source community: a scarce resource, always needed, but also always in short supply. One must earn it through contributions to an open source project or community. In contrast to monetary currency, however, influence is not transferable. You must earn it for yourself. You can neither give nor receive it as a gift.

In traditional organizational structures, influence follows an organization's top-down, command and control pattern—and influence is largely the result of one's position in a hierarchy. People at the top of those hierarchical structures make decisions, and those decisions flow downward to everyone else. The model is relatively stable, frequently rigid, and can encounter difficulties when conditions change.

But as Eric Raymond argues in The Cathedral and the Bazaar, open source communities don't operate in this "cathedral"-style manner. They work more like "bazaars," where act activity, power, and influence cut across formal lines of command and control. In an open organization therefore, influence must be earned. Influence not earned can be corrosive in an open organization.

That's because open organizations are more communal. The modern word "community" has as its root the Latin word "communitas," which has as part of its definition "public spirit, a sense of duty and willingness to serve one's community." This definition (and how it relates to your motivation for being involved in a community) is an important place to begin thinking about what it means to have influence in an open organization—and how you can acquire that influence.

Acquiring influence

In open source communities, influence operates differently. It can't be bought, inherited, elected through a ballot, bestowed through a job title, or gained through celebrity.

When starting out—in an open source community or an open organization—you'll need a level of interest in and an honest commitment to the goals and mission of the community.

Note our careful and intentional choice of the word "honest." Your intentions for acquiring influence must have at their root the goal of furthering the mission of the community. Your commitment must be to the community itself—not to the community insofar as it functions like a vehicle for self-promotion or padding your resume. Any attempts to use the community as a stepping stone will probably fail, as other members of the community will quickly discover your true motives. The open nature of an open source community means that insincerity has no place to hide, and when found, will be exposed. The "glue" that holds an open source community together is a commitment to the community's goals, the value that the community's projects provide, and ultimately, the community's output (most notably, the code it creates). The same is true in any open organization, no matter what it aims to produce.

As with any durable and meaningful relationship, making a commitment to a community takes time. In order to acquire influence in a community, you'll need to invest in that community. You cannot "parachute into" a community and acquire influence overnight.

So how can you begin?

In open source communities, before you start churning out code and documentation, you have to watch, listen, and learn before you act. You don't want to act in such a way that community members will think of you as an uninvited guest. Successful contributors are those that study a project and understand its goals, accomplishments, and challenges. They watch how the community functions. They figure out who the most active members are. They understand the types of contributions that accepted and which get rejected. Only then can they be ready to contribute.

When preparing to attain influence in an open organization, look for problems that need solving. That way, your contributions take the form of solutions as opposed to unwanted additions (new features, etc., in software communities). Occasionally you can make progress faster by moving slowly—easing into the community, as opposed to jumping into the pool and trying to make a big splash (you end up just spilling water into everyone's drinks).

The level of influence that you can earn is directly proportional to the scope and value of the contributions that you make to the community. By becoming a contributor to an open community, you also earn the credibility you'll need to achieve some level of influence in that community and on its projects.

Having your contributions noticed in and embraced by the community is always nice. When this happens, you will receive some notoriety (in open source code communities, for example, this can come in the form of pull request comments, recognition in blog posts, or other online acknowledgements and thanks). While it's fine for you to publicize these accomplishments and the growing influence in the community that these that these represent, refrain from public self-congratulations and self-promotion. The community should remain the center of attention.

Meritocracy != democracy

When acquiring influence in an open community, always pay attention to that community's governance model. Most open source coding communities, for example, aren't democracies; they're meritocracies. Ideas presented to the teams must be vetted and critically reviewed by the team in order to ensure that they provide value to the community. Changes do not take place in a vacuum, as they can affect many other people's work.

Practically speaking, this means that in open organizations everyone and anyone has the ability to voice an opinion. Transparency rules, and it's the key to giving everyone a fair opportunity to express opinions and thoughts. In an open source software project, for instance, anyone can open issues, respond to issues, provide code for features, influence new features, and so on. "Open" means, anyone and everyone can see the code, comment on it, raise issues against it, and provide fixes and features. Leaders in open source software communities derive their leadership capabilities from the merit of their contributions and respect these have garnered them from the community.

When preparing to attain influence in an open organization, look for problems that need solving. That way, your contributions take the form of solutions as opposed to unwanted additions.

However, these leaders don't command the open source software communities or impose arbitrary rules or opinions—mainly because everyone would ignore their commands and leave if they tried to do so. Transparency and partnership is what attracts community members to a project and grows a community successfully.

In the end, a leader in an open organization would fail miserably if he or she had to deliver everything personally. In fact, it's a mistake for a leader to attempt to do this. Contributions from the community are not a luxury "extra" for an open organization; they're vital to its success.

Patience and perseverance

Think of a world-class athlete, someone born with an innate skill may quickly rise to the top of his or her sport at a young age. Overcoming a serious injury might force that athlete to learn patience (and perhaps some humility, too) during a long rehabilitation, where even small steps forwards are painful and time-consuming.

Likewise, building credibility in an open source community is a long process. Influence can take years to develop. So patience and persistence are crucial. Early on, the process can seem daunting; the whole world is available to be influenced, yet you deploy patience by taking a step by step approach to starting small and thinking big. Like ripples in a pond when you drop a stone, your influence in your immediate circle of connections can grow through those connections to other people too and spread over time. In the second installment, then, we'll explain how influence, once acquired, can be applied in an open organization.

About the author

ldimaggi - Len is happily employed at Red Hat in the Boston, Massachusetts (USA) area and concentrates on quality for open source middleware and cloud products. Len is also a avid writer and blogger and photographer.

About the author

Juana Nakfour -