The Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees met in San Francisco a few weeks ago, and had a long and serious discussion about controversial content in the Wikimedia projects. (Why? Because we’re the only major site that doesn’t treat controversial material –e.g., sexually-explicit imagery, violent imagery, culturally offensive imagery– differently from everything else. The Board wanted –in effect– to probe into whether that was helping or hurting our effectiveness at fulfilling our mission.)
Out of that agenda item, we found ourselves talking about what it looks like when change is handled well at Wikimedia, what good leadership looks like in our context, and what patterns we can see in work that’s been done to date.
I found that fascinating, so I’ve done some further thinking since the meeting. The purpose of this post is to document some good patterns of leadership and change-making that I’ve observed at Wikimedia.
Couple of quick caveats: For this post, I’ve picked three little case studies of successful change at Wikimedia. I’m defining successful change here as ‘change that stuck’ – not as ‘change that led to a desirable outcome.’ (I think all these three outcomes were good, but that’s moot for the purposes of this. What I’m aiming to do here is extract patterns of effective process.) Please note also that I picked these examples quickly without a criteria set – my goal was just to pick a few examples I’m familiar with, and could therefore easily analyze. It’s the patterns that matter, not so much the examples.
That said: here are three case studies of successful change at Wikimedia.
- The Board’s statement on biographies of living people. Policies regarding biographies had been a topic of concern among experienced Wikipedians for years, mainly because there is real potential for people to be damaged when the Wikipedia article about them is biased, vandalized or inaccurate, and because our experience shows us that articles about non-famous people are particularly vulnerable to skew or error, because they aren’t read and edited by enough people. And, that potential for damage –particularly to the non-famous– grows along with Wikipedia’s popularity. In April 2009, the Board of Trustees held a discussion about BLPs, and then issued a statement which essentially reflected best practices that had been developed by the Wikipedia community, and recommended their consistent adoption. The Board statement was taken seriously: it’s been translated into 18 languages, discussed internally throughout the editing community, and has been cited and used as policies and practices evolve.
- The strategy project of 2009-10. Almost 10 years after Wikipedia was founded, the Board and I felt like it was time to stop down and assess: what are we doing well, and where do we want to focus our efforts going forward. So in spring 2009, the Wikimedia Board of Trustees asked me to launch a collaborative, transparent, participatory strategy development project, designed to create a five-year plan for the Wikimedia movement. Over the next year, more than 1,000 people participated in the project, in more than 50 languages. The resultant plan is housed on the strategy wiki here, and a summary version will be published this winter. You can never really tell the quality of strategy until it’s implemented (and sometimes not even then), but the project itself has accomplished what it set out to do.
- The license migration of May 2009. When I joined Wikimedia this process was already underway, so I only observed first-hand the last half of it. But it was lovely to watch. Essentially: some very smart and experienced people in leadership positions at Wikimedia decided it made sense to switch from the GFDL to CC-BY-SA. But, they didn’t themselves have the moral or legal right to make the switch – it needed to be made by the writers of the Wikimedia projects, who had originally released their work under the GFDL. So, the people who wanted the switch launched a long campaign to 1) negotiate a license migration process that Richard Stallman (creator of the GFDL and a hero of the free software movement) would be able to support, and 2) explain to the Wikimedia community why they thought the license migration made sense. Then, the Wikimedia board endorsed the migration, and held a referendum. It passed with very little opposition, and the switch was made.
Here are nine patterns I think we can extract from those examples:
- The person/people leading the change didn’t wait for it to happen naturally – they stepped up and took responsibility for making it happen. The strategy project grew out of a conversation between then-board Chair Michael Snow and me, because we felt that Wikimedia needed a coherent plan. The BLP statement was started by me and the Board, because we were worried that as Wikipedia grew more popular, consistent policy in this area was essential. The license migration was started by Jimmy Wales, Erik Moeller and others because they wanted it to be much easier for people to reuse Wikimedia content. In all these instances, someone identified a change they thought should be made, and designed and executed a process aimed at creating that change.
- A single person didn’t make the change themselves. A group of people worked together to make it happen. More than a thousand people worked on the strategy project. Probably hundreds have contributed (over several years) to tightening up BLP policies and practices. I’m guessing dozens of people contributed to the license migration. The lesson here is that in our context, lasting change can’t be produced by a single person.
- Early in the process, somebody put serious energy towards achieving a global/meta understanding of the issue, from many different perspectives. It might be worth pointing out that this is not something we normally do: in order to do amazing work, Random Editor X doesn’t have any need to understand the global whole; he or she can work quietly, excellently, pretty much alone. But in order to make change that involves multiple constituencies, the person doing it needs to understand the perspectives of everyone implicated by that change.
- The process was carefully designed to ask the right people the right questions at the right time. The license migration was an exemplar here: The people designing the process quite rightly understood that there was no point in asking editors’ opinions about something many of them probably didn’t understand. On the other hand, the change couldn’t be made without the approval of editors. So, an education campaign was designed that gave editors access to information about the proposed migration from multiple sources and perspectives, prior to the vote.
- A person or a group of people dedicated lots of hours towards figuring out what should happen, and making it happen. In each case here, lots of people did lots of real work: researching, synthesizing, analyzing, facilitating, imagining, anticipating, planning, communicating.
- The work was done mostly in public and was made as visible as possible, in an attempt to bolster trust and understanding among non-participants. This is fundamental. We knew for example that the strategy project couldn’t succeed if it happened behind closed doors. Again and again throughout the process, Eugene Eric Kim resisted people’s attempts to move the work to private spaces, because he knew it was critical for acceptance that the work be observable.
- Some discussion happened in private, inside a small group of people who trust each other and can work easily together. That’s uncomfortable to say, because transparency and openness are core values for us and anything that contradicts them feels wrong. But it’s true: people need safe spaces to kick around notions and test their own assumptions. I know for example that at the beginning of the Board’s BLP conversations, I had all kinds of ideas about ‘the problem of BLPs’ that turned out to be flat-out wrong. I needed to feel free to air my bad ideas, and get them poked at and refuted by people I could trust, before I could start to make any progress thinking about the issue. Similarly, the Board exchanged more than 300 e-mails about controversial content inside its private mailing list, before it felt comfortable enough to frame the issue up in a resolution that would be published. That private kicking around needs to happen so that people can test and accelerate and evolve their own thinking.
- People put their own credibility on the line, endorsing the change and trying to persuade others to believe in it. In a decentralized movement, there’s a strong gravitational pull towards the status quo, and whenever anyone tries to make change, they’re in effect saying to hundreds or thousands of people “Hey! Look over here! Something needs to happen, and I know what it is.” That’s a risky thing to do, because they might be perceived in a bunch of negative ways – as naiive or overreacting, as wrong or stupid or presumptuous, or even as insincere – pretending to want to help, but really motivated by inappropriate personal self-interest. Putting yourself on the line for something you believe in, in the face of suspicion or apathy, is brave. And it’s critical.
- Most people involved –either as participants or observers– wanted more than anything else to advance the Wikimedia mission, and they trusted that the others involved wanted the same thing. This is critical too. I have sometimes despaired at the strength of our default to the status quo: it is very, very hard to get things done in our context. But I am always reassured by the intelligence of Wikimedia community members, and by their dedication to our shared mission. I believe that if everyone’s aligned in wanting to achieve the mission, that’s our essential foundation for making good decisions.
Like I said earlier — these are just examples I’ve seen or been involved in personally. I’d be very interested to hear other examples of successful change at Wikimedia, plus observations & thinking about patterns we can extract from them.