On Forests and Trees

The perpetual dilemma in volunteer organizations


“Can’t See The Forest For the Trees.”

There are several perspectives you can take when standing in the middle of a forest. You may see the tree directly in front of you or you may see through the trees to the clearing ahead. Neither of these views is wrong and each perspective has its benefit. As volunteer, open source organizations grow in size these two perspectives become more distinct and more recognizable. Yet a serious and potentially disastrous situation lies within the intricate balance between the forest and the trees.

Too Many

Most volunteer organizations are seeking fresh, new faces. The more bodies helping in the process is perpetually sought. However, when does “more” become “too many”? The analogies are virtually endless. I’ve heard dozens of them before.

“Too many cooks spoil the broth”
“Too many chiefs and not enough indians”

The list can go on and on. Clearly through the decades mankind has come to realize an inherent downfall of involving too many people in a particular situation or decision. Because of personal experience I’ll relate this to open source communities but quite obviously the potential problem exists for more than just open source.

Open Source

The power of open source is the distribution of work over a wide number of volunteers. Other common adages come to mind, such as:

“Many hands make light work.”
“The more the merrier.”

Power in Numbers

These are a positive outlook on the opportunity for a large number of contributors to accomplish tasks often considered to large for a single individual. This is of course true. The pyramids of Egypt could not have been built without the many many people working on them.

Great achievements require extreme dedication by diverse people.

The dilemma

If we understand that the more people means the more possibilities we have to accomplish great things why would we be discouraged by more “cooks”? The answer is quite simple. The problem is not the size of the community or the number of cooks. I’ll oversimplify the situation to make it easier to see the contrast. Let’s separate our volunteers into two groups.

One group we’ll call the doers. These are the architects, the engineers, the coders, the visionaries interested in seeing change happen. This group is focused on progress, movement, and activity. They see the forest.

The second group we’ll call the discussers. These are the thinkers, the detail-oriented, methodical planners. This group focuses on stability, use cases scenarios, and the potential for problems. They see the trees.

If the delicate community balance shifts too much towards one of these two groups the results are highly problematic and can lead to the collapse of a community.

Am I being too dramatic? No, I don’t believe I am. If a community does not pay attention to this balance and ignores the warning signs then problems are inevitable.

The symptoms

A community which wants to ensure they don’t fall victim to this fate should pay close attention for these two symptoms. When one of these two groups takes too much control the community will suffer.

Disgruntled Doers

One of the most obvious indications of an out of balanced community is a strongly negative vibe from the doers. (Remember, the doers like activity, progress and forward movement). When doers feel as though they can’t “do” then they become frustrated. Their single focus and purpose for being involved in a community has been thwarted and their contributions are neglected or worse buried in bureaucracy.

When the discussers are overly active in their debate on each and every change or activity within a community the doers become disheartened. Their progress slows to a crawl or stops moving all together. Here’s a general progression for a community where the discussers are overpowering the doers:

A doer submits idea for change. When questioned the doer explains the logic for the decision and purpose for the change. At this point the doer is still actively interested and invested. If however the balance is wrong between the two groups the discussion continues. And continues. And continues. The discussers prefer to think about every option, every potential for problem, and every way the change will negatively impact the community. The doer has begun to lose interest at this point. They may offer a few additional remarks but have lost heart as change seems stalled.

If indeed the change is not made the doer sees this a personal failure. Their purpose has been denied. The next phase for this doer is apathy. No longer do they care about the community or the progress. This eventually leads to bitterness. As time passes the doer sees the entire community as a hostile environment and publicly begins denouncing / ridiculing the situation. Eventually the doer leaves for a new community.

Doers are nurtured in communities where progress occurs.

Disregarded Discussers

The second symptom to be watched for in an open source community where disruption may occur is the disregard for the discussers. In communities where the doers are in control the changes happen quickly and the community begins to spread out. The purpose of the discussers is consistency, community support, and ultimately stability. Discussers who are denied or disregarded become annoyed and afraid.

When the doers overpower the community the discussers feel as though they aren’t heard. When discussers aren’t heard the following breakdown begins to occur:

Discussers hear of a potential change to be made. They bring up the questions they have based on a number of reasons, either they need more information to feel informed or they don’t understand the proposal, or they simply want to share their opinion on the idea. If the doers are in control then the change progresses after the briefest of conversations. Sometimes without any conversation at all. This push for progress without the discussers feeling “safe” with the decision leaves them feeling scared.

When a discusser feels disregarded and unheard they also become frustrated. They worry about the community and the apparent disinterest in the possible failures. The discusser will turn to vocalizing their frustration and begin the process of insulating themselves by separating from the community. Eventually the discusser sees their efforts are futile and will leave the community.

Discussers feel valuable in communities where their voice is heard.

The Solution

This leads to our conclusion. The problem with communities is not size. Indeed we have seen that size is of utmost importance in order to achive great results. Communities are correct in their desire to see new faces and to always be seeking new volunteers. The dilemma is a proper understanding and management of the personality types within a community.

A strong community needs both doers and discussers. Successful communities pay attention to the details — they focus on the trees; but they also continue to make progress and improve — they focus on the forest as well. Where do you fit? What does your community look like and is there a good balance between these two groups? If not, then look for ways to help balance things. If so then keep up the good work!

A Strong Community is a Balanced Community.
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