How We Work Remix

August 20, 2008 § Leave a comment

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know that one of my Shuttleworth open philanthropy experiments was the ‘How We Work‘ club. This is basically a quarterly pizza lunch where the whole organization reflects on an important aspect of how we function as a foundation (e.g. making sure everything is under an open license). The conversations focus on what’s working, what’s not and how things could be better. I then write up a blog posting and an article so that the rest of the world can learn from the discussion.


This week’s pie noshing chat focused on a highly recursive topic: how is the How We Work club working? Somewhat surprisingly to me, the answer was a unanimous ‘it’s working well’ … or, at least, ‘it’s quite useful’.

The first thing that people seem to appreciate is checking our rhetoric against reality. Our discussions on open licensing are a case in point. We’d been saying ‘we’re doing a better job on open licensing’ for while. Sitting down to talk about it underlined the fact that we actually hadn’t finished or published our new Open Resources Policy. And, putting a deadline on writing up an article forced us to actually get the policy done (or, at least, for me to harangue Karen and Andrew constantly :)). The result was that we actually delivered what we said we’d been doing: offering a clear open licensing policy that the world could see and our partners could review.

Talking through the open licensing policy also surfaced the fact that we didn’t have consensus on which licenses to promote (share-alike) and who should own intellectual property (external partners or the foundation). An hour of forceful conversation went a long way to showing where the differences were, and helping us construct some common ground. As a result, we ended up with clearer language on license flexibility (share alike is the default, but arguments can be made for slightly more or less open licenses). Also, we created room for different options around IP stewardship (the draft policy had the foundation owning everything). These were important changes that both improved the policy and made sure we had a document that was more widely supported by the team.

The other thing that people appreciate is the opportunity to think through ‘how we work now’ against the backdrop of mistakes we’ve made in the past. Strategy at the Shuttleworth Foundation definitely has a heavy dose of emergence. Which is a nice way to say: we’re willing to make mistakes and then hack things to make them better response. The licensing policy emerged at least in part from problems with our laissez faire ‘just use an open license’ approach. Similarly, the fellowship program grew from frustration with having to invent a ‘project’ to fund for every smart person we wanted to work with. Looking back at the things that shaped current practices has helped us all get on the page about ‘why we are who we are’. Hopefully, it will also result in useful lessons for other small foundations.


Of course, there are some things that are broken about the How We Work process. For example, all of the writing sits with one person (me). Different people have different expertise and passions. It’s likely we’d get better material if the person who cares most about a topic were to write it up. Also, there is a fair bit of brokenness in our follow up and promotion process. We did nothing to get the Open Resources Policy article out there other than putting it up on our site. We need to flog stuff like this more widely.

Despite the fact that I’m heading off into the open philanthropy sunset, the How We Work club will continue, albeit under a new name: Notes From a Small Foundation. There is a general feeling that this is more about ‘what we’re learning’ than simply ‘how we work’. The new name reflects that. Karien will be leading the charge on this new version, with different people facilitating and writing up a session every couple of months. Upcoming topics include ‘IRC, wikis and internal communications’ (Steve S) and ‘project exit strategies’ (Helen). It’ll be fun (and a bit sad) to watch this next chapter unfold from afar.

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