Leading Without Authority

 

In the tropics, life can always happen outside. And so it was that I found myself recently in a planning meeting in the middle of a park in Jakarta. The air was hot and humid, the trees lush and in the background we could hear an open air violin class for children. For lunch someone ordered Gado Gado from their smartphone, and it came in plastic containers with the sauce in tiny plastic bags.

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A group of 25 of us sat on the ground. I was spending the day with with is the Mozilla Indonesia community; dentists, museum curators, designers, developers, university students and film critics who come together because they recognize the opportunities that open source software can create. Sometimes the post-it notes we were using flew away or curious people came to take pictures.

This group has helped to design and launch Mozilla products for the Indonesian market, growing the local open source community, and maintaining a vibrant open community space. Firefox Lite, a version of the Firefox browser specifically designed with and for the Indonesian market is now expanding to other Asian markets after it’s successful launch. The common vision that brings this community together is to empower all Indonesians to take advantage of the power of the web, helping to build products and initiatives that put their local needs at the center. And learning what makes this group choose to spend a Sunday together amid the park goers, holds some clues for how we need to think about collaboration and leadership today.

In these types of communities, you can’t tell anyone to do anything. You can merely empower them, inspire them, and create the space for them to collaborate. As I have learned through the years of working with open source communities the main ingredients to approach collaborations are through building trust and a common vision. Communities and teams that are built upon strong relationships, where no member is always at the center, are better able to adapt to different situations and draw from the different skills and connections of all of its members.

Creating these types of communities requires building bridges between members and nurturing the community or network to develop their relationships way beyond your own reach. In my experience good teams have a contagious energy that allows them draw people to support them and champion them. Less successful teams spend time and energy undermining or duplicating each other’s efforts and struggle finding collaborators and allies. Meeting the different collaboration partners where they are, understanding their needs, skills and motivations to join your effort is the only way to build long lasting bridges. And breaking bread together does help.

When it comes to trust, two main dimensions play a role for collaboration: trust in the people of the group and also trust in the skills of the group. Putting transparency at the center of the collaboration allows the group to avoid the downsides of mistrust, while usually also providing documentation for the future. Making sure there is enough and appropriate technical expertise or access to it makes the team confident and creates a space where experimentation and creativity are more likely to happen.

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What ultimately brings and keeps communities together is a shared vision. In this case to use the power of the open web to tackle local challenges. It’s also what guides all collaborative efforts and allows teams to be aligned and realigned. It’s the space that the community inhabits. I like to think about the common vision as a river, that we jump into together. It might not flow straight, there might be bumps and rocks along the way. But the water flows in one direction.

That day after this meeting in the middle of the park, we grabbed some street food and finished the day singing karaoke. Not every community will need street food, a public tropical park or communal singing to collaborate on a shared goal. But getting a group of people to take the plunge with you, is fundamentally different to traditional ways of working.

Whilst life in Indonesia will continue to happen outside, we have also learned that innovation increasingly happens on the outside too. Outside of individual organisations and involving many people, motivated by different things. In addition we are witnessing the growing gig economy and significant changes to the job market. This all means that we need to develop new models of collaborative leadership for these types of diverse communities to collaborate.

Complex problems such as climate change, require multiple stakeholders to collaborate, who are not bound by nations or traditional organizational structures. In many cases there aren’t formal authorities to lead or enforce decisions. Open source and volunteer communities offer a proven model for leading without authority and for creating resilient teams that want to tackle big challenges together.

By Rosana Ardila