I spent this past weekend with Wikimedia trustee Phoebe Ayers at the Quaker Center in Ben Lomond, California, attending a workshop called Business Among Friends: Clerking as a Spiritual Discipline.

Neither Phoebe nor I are Quakers, but we’re curious about them. I first read about the similarities between Quaker and Wikimedian decision-making practices in Joseph Reagle‘s excellent new analysis of the Wikipedia community Good Faith Collaboration – and since then, I’ve read a dozen or so Quaker books and pamphlets. I’ve been especially interested in the practice of “clerking.”

The job of the Quaker clerk is to facilitate Quaker meetings – to create the agenda, set the tone, traffic-cop the discussion, listen, help resolve conflict, and understand and document agreement. It’s a role that reminds me a lot of leadership (both formal & informal) at the Wikimedia Foundation, and so I’ve been curious to learn more about it. The purpose of this post is to share some impressions and identify a few Quaker practices that I think Wikimedia could usefully adopt.

Disclaimer! Experienced Quakers will probably find that my grasp of some practices is shaky, and I may have mischaracterized things. People who attended the workshop may remember things differently from me. And, I am going to use words like “consensus” in the non-Quaker sense, so that they’ll make sense for readers who aren’t familiar with Quakerism. My apologies for errors and misunderstandings.

Based on what I’d read, I expected the Quakers to be mostly middle-aged or older, mostly white, and really, really friendly. They were exactly that.

But I was surprised to discover also some unexpected commonalities with Wikimedians. Both speak in acronyms (WP:NPOV, meet M&O, FCL and FAP). Both are really proud of their work, and yet tend towards self-criticism rather than self-promotion. Both talk a lot, and are precise and articulate in the way they use language (the Quakers I met spoke in complex sentences, studded with caveats and parentheticals). Both resist speaking on behalf of their group. And both have a strong individualistic streak, and describe themselves as skeptical about leadership and authority.

(To that last point: On Saturday night, Quaker adults and teenagers played a game called Big Wind Blows, which is kind of like musical chairs. Everyone’s in a circle and the person in the centre, who doesn’t have a seat, calls out “Big wind blows for everybody who [has X characteristic].” Everybody without the characteristic stays in their chair; everybody with it runs around looking for a new seat. On Saturday night, the first person in the centre said something like “Big wind blows for everyone with brown hair.” Second was “everyone who’s wearing blue jeans.” Third was “everyone who’s gone to jail for a matter of conscience.” Four Quakers in the group had chosen jail rather than, say, serving in the military or paying taxes. And doing that was considered ‘normal’ enough to be fodder for a game.)

Tomorrow, once I’ve cleaned them up, I’ll post some detailed notes I took. For now though, I’ll elaborate on a few Quaker practices that I think we Wikimedians could learn from. Most of this will be applicable for face-to-face meetings (i.e., our board meetings, Wikimania, meet-ups), but there may be relevance here for on-wiki work too.

Everybody who’s part of the movement shares responsibility for helping it succeed. Nobody gets to sit on the sidelines and watch things fail.

The Quakers talk a lot about “clerking yourself,” which basically means taking personal responsibility for the group’s collective success. People are expected to behave in a disciplined fashion, including managing themselves emotionally. They’re expected to be open-minded, open to learning and changing their minds. They’re expected to pay attention and listen carefully to each other. They’re expected to avoid the temptation to get mad or show off, and to instead speak “with love rather than judgment.” They’re expected to restrain themselves from talking too much, from interrupting other people, and from repeating the same arguments again and again. Quakers are expected to be willing and able to calmly, thoughtfully, explore areas of disagreement. If they’re feeling shy or reticent or silenced, they’re expected to say that, so that other people can find ways to support them and ensure they’re heard. And if other people are behaving badly, everyone is expected to try to help them behave better.

All this, obviously, is aspirational. As someone at the workshop said, Quakers aren’t paragons, and they’re just as likely as anyone else to be childish and whiny and egotistical. But they’re expected to try really hard not to be.

Setting the right tone is critical for success.

All weekend, I was struck by the Quakers’ skill at establishing and maintaining a rich, healthy emotional tone.

The most obvious example of this is the Quakers’ use of silence. Quakers really value silence: it’s built into all of their religious meetings and their discussions, and during the weekend, we probably spent a combined total of two or three hours together in silence — sometimes for long stretches, and sometimes just for a few minutes. That does something really interesting: it makes everybody more judicious. You have time to reflect, to organize your thoughts, to calm down. You get to listen to other people, rather than using their speaking time to plan what you’ll say next. What you say is smarter and more thoughtful than it would’ve been otherwise.

That’s just one technique the Quakers use: there were lots of others. Elizabeth and Eric, who facilitated the workshop, modeled warmth and patience and respect. They thanked people, a lot. They acknowledged and welcomed the new people. They opened the meetings in a circle, with everyone holding hands.

It reminded me of something Sal Giambanco of Omidyar Network once told me – that he recommends non-profit boards kick off their meetings with a recitation of their mission statement. It’s the same kind of thing – rituals and practices designed to remind us that what we’re doing together is meaningful, so that we can approach it in a spirit of love and respect.

Sometimes you have to kick out difficult people. Maybe.

The people attending the workshop were all experienced Quakers. And it was clear from the stories they told and the questions they asked, that Quaker meetings suffer from difficult people.

This reminded me of Wikimedia. Because it didn’t seem like difficult people were necessarily over-represented inside Quakerism. Rather, it seemed like a normal number of difficult people created stress and anxiety disproportionate to their actual numbers. Elizabeth says that many clerks have shared with her stories about a single problematic member in their meeting, who wants attention or influence and takes advantage of the consensus process to grandstand and delay or block action for months or even years. Quakers call these people ‘dissenting spirits’ or ‘chronic objectors,’ and characterize them as “needing to hold themselves out of alignment with the group.” Elizabeth describes them as people who, no matter how much trust is extended to them, are unable to develop trust in others. Their disruptive presence can drive away others, and sometimes even threaten the survival of the group.

Which sounded sadly familiar to me.

Here’s what I think happens. Where other groups might unhesitatingly excommunicate a person who repeatedly broke their rules, it seems to me that the Wikimedia projects and the Quakers both tend to agonize instead, presumably because both groups pride themselves on being highly inclusive and tolerant. (Remember I said the Quakers are strongly individualistic? I suspect that, like some Wikimedians, some Quakers have a history of getting kicked out of various groups, and so they have a lot of empathy for people having that kind of difficulty.)

But even the Quakers, it seems, have their limits. As Elizabeth wrote in her book on clerking, “A healthy meeting will provide spiritual nurture for the ‘difficult’ Friend, but will understand that protecting the safety of the meeting has priority. It will not confuse ‘being loving’ or ‘being Quakerly’ with tolerating the destructive behavior of an individual, but will understand that setting firm limits is loving.”

This was probably the most uncomfortable topic that got addressed during the workshop, and it was the only time I remember when Elizabeth and Eric seemed to disagree. It’s a tough topic, both for the Quakers and Wikimedians.

I want to thank Jacob Stone and Gretta Stone, directors of the Quaker Center in Ben Lomond, as well as Elizabeth Boardman (Davis Meeting) and Eric Moon (Berkeley Meeting), facilitators of the workshop. Everybody at the workshop was enormously welcoming to Phoebe and me: we are really grateful. Seriously: it was lovely.

I’ll publish more notes –rougher, longer– probably tomorrow.

I read a book recently called Authentic Conversations, which is essentially an argument for honesty at work. That may not sound too radical, but it actually is. I’ve managed people for more than a decade, and the book made me think about how much conventional management theory and training is designed to replace authenticity with calculation, and how damaging that can be.

The book opens with a great story, in which the publisher of a struggling newspaper is doing a newsroom walkaround. [1]

It’s tough times for newspapers, so his staff ask him lots of anxious questions — is the company okay, what’s he doing about the advertising slump, has he figured out the pension issue. He talks confidently about how things are going to be okay. There’s a plan. The board is optimistic. And so forth. The authors (who were with the publisher that day, presumably starting a consulting engagement), say he clearly felt he was doing good work – creating an atmosphere of calm and confidence, so that his staff could focus on doing their jobs well.

And I have to say, I have definitely been there. I’ve never lied to anyone who works for me, but I worked for a long time in a troubled industry, and I certainly expressed optimism more strongly than I felt it, many many many times, and for the same reason the poor publisher was probably doing it.

The twist to the story is that back in the guy’s office, the consultants rip into him and tell him what he did was horrible. They persuade him to call a special meeting and tell his staff he’d been lying — that the company is indeed in trouble, and that neither he nor anyone can give them the reassurance they want. And that he’s not their father, and isn’t responsible for their security or for their happiness.

The story ends triumphantly, with applause all around.

I’d be surprised if things actually played out that way, because I don’t think that people necessarily value truth that much. But I do think that even when people don’t want the truth, or aren’t comforted by it, they deserve it.

The authors go on to decry that they call “speaking for effect.” Which again struck me as pretty radical. As a young manager, I was trained –over and over again, explicitly and by modelled behaviour– to carefully manage my words and tone in order to create the response I wanted.

  • A mentor of mine was well-known for using silence to increase his authority. In big meetings, he’d be perfectly watchful, and would say nothing.  Throughout the meeting, the other participants would get more and more nervous, wondering what he was thinking. They’d start second-guessing themselves and poking holes in their own arguments. Eventually they’d start actively soliciting his opinion, and by the time he finally spoke, whatever he said carried enormous weight. [2]
  • Two friends of mine, who were also friends of each other and who ran competitive TV shows inside our organization, used to stage yelling matches in front of their newsroooms in which they’d argue over whose show warranted more resources from the shared services pool (like, edit suite time or PR support). They did it so their teams would feel valued and defended, and afterwards they’d go out for beer.
  • I had a boss who was famous for his terrible temper. He’d shout, hang up on people, send all-caps e-mails, and storm around the office slamming doors and throwing things. But his capacity for anger –and his reputation for it– was mostly calculated — he’d slam down the phone and start laughing.
  • A colleague was proud of her ability to shame her staff into doing better work. Her magic words, she told me, were “I am disappointed in you.” I once watched her role-play a performance assessment, and I found her acting ability pretty remarkable. She’d sigh, put down her pencil, make prolonged eye contact, and say something like “Jim. You’re really letting down the team.”
  • And then there’s a very common use of speaking for effect: the deliberate expression of trivial agreement. This is particularly done, I think, in big, old companies where responsibility is diffused and group buy-in is critical. In those contexts, expressing trivial agreement (“sounds interesting!”, “good point!”, “great feedback!”) is the small coin of the realm. If you do it well, it costs you nothing, wins you allies, and puts money in the favour bank.

I’m not trying to argue that all these tactics are necessarily bad. It’s obviously true that managers need to be in control of their emotions, and need to be conscious of their effects on others. Undisciplined and reckless bosses can cause all kinds of problems.

But I think a little calculation goes a long way. And I also think there’s a cost, which sometimes goes unnoticed.  People who are very studied, whose words and responses are calculated for effect more so than being spontaneous and natural — they’re behaving inauthentically.  To a degree, they’re treating other people as means to an end rather than as human beings, and their behaviour also suggests that their minds are totally made up: they are not actually open to new information, they’ve figured out the correct end state, and the only work that needs to be done is persuading you to go there. Which means they run the risk that the people around them will learn over time to distrust them. It also means they miss the opportunity to engage authentically — to have real conversations, to stretch themselves, to learn.

[1] I don’t have the book with me, so I may have butchered specifics a little. But the gist of the story’s accurate.
[2] Warning to women who might consider trying this tactic: it doesn’t work for women. Truly. I liked a lot of things about that guy, and I tried modelling my own behaviour on his for a while, but it didn’t take long to realize that a silent woman is perceived totally differently from a silent man. Suffice to say that a silent woman is easily mistaken for a person without authority, regardless of how much she may actually have. Too bad :-(

About a week ago, I started running a little survey asking Wikimedians how we should approach target-setting for the next five years.

I did it because next month Wikimedia will finalize the targets that’ll guide our work for the next five years, and I wanted to gather some quick feedback on the thinking that’s been done on that, to date.  The survey’s close to wrapping up now, and the results thus far are terrific: there appears to be good consensus on what we want to measure, as well as on our general approach.

More detail below!  But first, some general background.

In July 2009, the Wikimedia Foundation kicked off a massive strategy development project, which is starting to wrap up now. [1] The one major set of decisions that remains to be finalized is how we will measure progress towards our goals.

The draft goals, measures of success and targets that have been developed via the strategy project are here. They were created over the past several months by Wikimedia community members, Bridgespan staff, and Wikimedia Foundation staff (thank you all) – and in my opinion, they’re pretty good.  They focus on what’s important, and they do a reasonably good job of figuring out how to measure things that don’t always lend themselves to easy measurement.

Before finalizing the targets and taking them to the Wikimedia Board of Trustees for approval, I wanted to gather some additional input, so I hacked together a quick, imperfect little survey.   (You can read it –and fill it out if you want– here.) The purpose of this post is just to share the results — I will probably write more about the targets themselves later.

First some methodology: I made the survey in Google Docs, and sent identical versions to i) the Wikimedia Board, ii) the Wikimedia staff, and iii) the “foundation-l” mailing list (a public list on which anyone can talk about the Wikimedia Foundation and Wikimedia projects), the Wikimedia Foundation Advisory Board list, and the “internal-l” mailing list (a private list intended for Wikimedia chapters representatives and Wikimedia Foundation board and staff).  Then –for the purposes of this post– I aggregated together all three sets of results, which total about 120 individual responses thus far.

If I’d been more serious I’d have used LimeSurvey, which is a better survey tool than Google Docs — but this is really just meant to be a structured solicitation of input, rather than a proper quantitative study.  For one thing, the “community” results reflect only a tiny fraction of active editors — those who read English, who are on Wikimedia’s mailing lists or are connected with people who are, and who self-selected to answer the survey.  So, please resist the temptation to over-interpret whatever numbers I’ve given here.

In general, I was happy to find that the survey surfaced lots of consensus.  A comfortable majority agrees with all of the following:

  • Wikimedia’s goals should be “ambitious but possible.” (Other less-popular options were: “definitely attainable, but not necessarily easily,” “audacious and probably not attainable, but inspiring,” and “fairly easily attainable.”)
  • We agree that the purpose of setting goals is “to create a shared understanding and alignment about what we’re trying to do, publicly and with everyone.” (Other options: “to create an audacious target that everyone can get excited about and rally behind,” and “to create accountability.”)
  • In setting goals, we believe “perfection is the enemy of the good: I would rather see us using imperfect measures than no measures at all.” (About 15% of respondents felt otherwise, believing that “imperfect measures are a waste of time and energy.”)
  • The Wikimedia Foundation’s goals should be dependent on efforts by both the Wikimedia Foundation and the Wikimedia community, not by the Foundation alone. (18% of respondents felt otherwise, that the targets should be “entirely within the control of the Wikimedia Foundation to influence.”)
  • If we exceed our goals, practically everyone will be “thrilled.” (About five percent of respondents felt otherwise, saying that they would be “disappointed: that would tell me our goals weren’t sufficiently challenging.”
  • If we fail to meet our goals, about three quarters of respondents will feel “fine, because goals are meant to aspire/align: if we do good work but don’t meet them, that’s okay.” Interestingly, this is one of the few areas of the survey where there was a real division between the staff of the Wikimedia Foundation and other respondents. Only 17% of staff agreed they’d be okay with missing our targets. I think this is probably good, because it suggests that the staff feel a high sense of personal responsibility for their work.
  • Almost everyone agrees that “goal-setting for the Wikimedia Foundation is difficult. We should set goals now, but many measures and targets will be provisional, and we’ll definitely need to REFINE them over the next five years, possibly radically.” (Runner-up response: “we can set good goals, measures and targets now, and we should NOT need to change them much during the next five years.” And a very small number felt that we should refrain from setting targets for “things we’re still uncertain about,” and instead restrict ourselves to areas that are “straightforward.”)
  • The global unique visitors target is felt by most to be “attainable if the staff and community work together to achieve it.” (About 20% of respondents felt the target might be “even happen without any particular intervention.”)

I wanted to get a sense of what measures people felt were most important. They’re below, in descending order of importance. (The number is the percentage of total respondents who characterized the measure as either “critical” or “important.” Other options were “somewhat important,” “not important,” and “don’t know/not sure.”)

It’s probably worth noting that consensus among community members, the board and the staff was very high.  For more than half the measures, the percentage of respondents rating the measure as “important” or “critical” varied by less than 10% among the different groups, and for the remainder, it varied by less than 20%.

Measure Avg
Retention of active editors 84
Number of active editors 83
Site performance in different geographies 80
Demographics of active editors 80
Uptime of all key services 78
Financial stability 74
Global unique visitors 66
Secure off-site copies 65
Number of articles/objects/resources 65
Regular snapshots/archives 60
Thriving research community 54
Offline reach 53
Reader-submitted quality assessments 41
Expert article assessments 40
Community-originated gadgets/tools/extensions 22

The survey’s still accepting input — if you’re interested you’ve got until roughly 7PM UTC, Wednesday August 18, to fill it out.

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[1]

I launched the Wikimedia strategy project at the request of the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees, and it was led by Eugene Eric Kim of Blue Oxen Associates, a consulting firm with a special focus on enabling collaborative process. Eugene worked with Philippe Beaudette, a longtime Wikipedian and online facilitator for the project, and The Bridgespan Group, a non-profit strategy consulting firm that provided data and analysis for us. The premise of the project was that the Wikimedia movement had achieved amazing things (the number five most-used site in the world! 375 million visitors monthly!), and it was now time to reflect on where we were making good progress towards fulfilling the mission, and where we weren’t. With the goal of course-correcting where we weren’t doing well.

To come up with a good plan, we wanted to stay true to our core and central premise: that open, mass collaboration is the most effective method for achieving high-quality decisionmaking. So, we designed the process to be transparent, participatory and collaborative. So, during the course of the project, more than a thousand volunteers worked together in 50+ languages — in teams and as individuals, mostly in public on the strategy wiki, but supplemented by IRC meetings, Skype calls, e-mail exchanges, and face-to-face conversations (e.g., meetings were held in Berlin, Paris, Buenos Aires, San Francisco, Boston and Gdansk).

The project’s now entering its final phase, and you can see the near-final results here on the strategy wiki.  What remains to be done is the finalization of the measures of success, which will happen over the next six or so weeks. At that point, there will be some final wordsmithing, and the result will be brought to the Wikimedia Board of Trustees for approval.

I will probably write about the strategy project at a later date, because it is super-interesting. (Meanwhile, if you’re interested, you can read a little about it here in a story that Noam Cohen wrote from Wikimania 2010 in Gdansk.)

I never thought much about the Quakers [1] until I read Joseph Reagle‘s excellent new book Good Faith Collaboration: The Culture of Wikipedia (forthcoming from MIT Press in September), in which Joseph references the Quaker consensus decisionmaking processes – and specifically, how Quakers resolve dissent.

Joseph cites the sociological study Beyond Majority Rule: Voteless Decisions in the Society of Friends – an exploration of Quaker decisionmaking by Jesuit priest Michael J. Sheeran, who had spent two years observing and interviewing Quakers for his Princeton PhD thesis, which afterwards was published by the Quakers and is now considered a definitive guide on the subject.

Consensus decisionmaking (CDM) is a really interesting topic for Wikimedians because we make most of our decisions by consensus, and we struggle every day with CDM’s inherent limitations. It’s slow and sometimes tedious, it’s messy and vulnerable to disruption, and –most problematically– it’s got a strong built-in bias towards the status quo. CDM creates weird perverse incentives – for example, it gives a lot of power to people who say no, which can make saying no attractive for people who want to be powerful. And it can act to empower people with strong views, regardless of their legitimacy or correctness.

Beyond Majority Rule was so fascinating that it’s sent me on a bit of a Quaker reading binge, and in the past month or so I’ve read about a dozen books and pamphlets on Quaker practices.  I’ve been interested to see what values and practices the Quakers and Wikimedians share, and whether there are things the Quakers do, that we might usefully adopt.

For the most part, Quaker practices likely aren’t particularly adaptable for mass collaboration, because they don’t scale easily.  They seem best-suited to smallish groups that are able to meet frequently, face-to-face.

But some Quaker practices, I think, are relevant to Wikimedia, and we are either already using versions of them, or should consider it. The Quaker “clerk” role, I think, is very similar to our leadership roles such as board or committee chair. The Quaker decisionmaking process has strong similarities to how our board of trustees makes its decisions, and I think Quaker methods of reconciling dissent might be particularly useful for us.  (Quakers have better-codified levels of dissent and paths to resolution than we do — I think we could adopt some of this.) And the Quaker schools’ delineation of roles-and-responsibilities among board, staff and community members, could I think also be a good model for us.

I plan to write more about the Quakers in coming weeks. For now though, here’s a list of what I’ve been reading:

[1] Quakers have their roots in 17th century England. There are about 360,000 Quakers today, mainly in Africa, the Asia Pacific Region, the UK and North America. Most consider themselves Christians, although a few identify as agnostic, atheistic, or as members of non-Christian faith traditions such as Judaism or Islam. Quakers are probably best known for their belief that the word of God is still emergent rather than fully known, their silent and “unprogrammed” religious services which have no leaders, hymns or incantations, their centuries-old tradition of pacifism and social activism, and their consensus decision-making process.

Read more about the Quakers at Wikipedia.

I stumbled recently across sociologist Gary Marx‘s documentation of tactics covertly used by external parties to hurt or help social/political movements [1].

Like for example the FBI attempts to discredit Martin Luther King Jr. by painting him as a womanizer.   Or the CIA’s 1967 project Operation CHAOS, designed to monitor the student antiwar movement. Or the FBI’s attempts under COINTELPRO in the late sixties to undermine what it called “black nationalist hate groups” by inciting rivalries among them.

I’m kind of a categorization geek, so I liked Marx’s crisp table of the ways in which folks have aimed to covertly undermine the movements that they found threatening. By investigating and harassing participants, and discrediting leaders. Fomenting internal conflict: encouraging jealousy, suspicion, factionalism and personal animosity. Spreading damaging misinformation. Undermining morale and thwarting recruitment efforts. Undermining activities that generate revenue. Encouraging hostility between the movement and its potential allies and partners. Creating similar organizations that compete for resources and public mindshare. Sabotaging events and projects. And so forth.

Reading all this, I started thinking about Wikimedia, which is of course a sort of social movement. Our goal is to make information easily available for people everywhere around the world – free of commercialism, free of charge, free of bias. That’s a radical mission.

Given that, it’s interesting to look at how external entities have responded to Wikipedia’s extraordinary success – especially those who have reason (or think they might have reason) to feel threatened by it.

So for example, the media. Conventional media business models are crumbling, and media organizations are struggling to persuasively articulate their value proposition.  Some see Wikipedia as a competitor. So it doesn’t surprise me that –with a fervour that can border on the obsessive– some media talk so relentlessly about why Wikipedia can’t succeed, and make predictions about how quickly, and in what manner, it will fail.  Cultural and educational and PR organizations have less of a megaphone, but apart from that their initial responses have been pretty similar. [2]

None of that is surprising. What has surprised me though, is the other side of the balance sheet.

Marx posits a world in which detractors work against a social movement, and supporters work in favour of it.

At Wikimedia, we’ve had our share of detractors. But I’ve found myself more surprised by the other side — surprised that Wikimedia’s most articulate and passionate supporters –its core editors– don’t do more to promote its success.

Here are some of the things Marx says people can do to support social movements:

  • Work to create a favourable public image for the movement
  • Support participants and help recruit new participants
  • Help with effective communications
  • Support revenue-generating activities
  • Build and sustain participant morale
  • Build and support leaders
  • Encourage internal solidarity: support kindness, understanding, generosity and a sense of common purpose
  • Encourage external solidarity: support the development of common cause between the movement and its potential allies and partners
  • Support movement events and projects.

I want to be clear: lots of Wikimedia editors (and other supporters) do this work. We have a communications committee which is sometimes remarkably effective. The Wikimedia network of international chapters is excellent at outreach work – particularly the German chapter, which pioneered the Wikipedia Academy concept, and lots of other initiatives. Editorial and movement leadership emerges almost entirely organically at Wikimedia, and I have seen it warmly and enthusiastically supported. And we have some really terrific editors working tirelessly to develop strategic partnerships with cultural and educational institutions. So there is lots of good work being done.

But even so: sometimes when I read our mailing lists, I laugh out loud at how Wikimedians can be our own worst enemies. We subject each other to relentless scrutiny — criticizing our own leaders and supporters and activities, monitoring, speculating, worrying, and poking and prodding each other. All, frequently, in public.

I’ve been trying to figure out why we’re like this. And I think there are two main contributing factors. One is, Wikipedians are engaged first and foremost in building an encyclopedia, and knowledge workers of the encyclopedia-writing type are famously fussy, fastidious, fact-obsessed and obsessive about neutrality. So it makes sense that neutrality is a value that extends to our communications about the Wikimedia projects. We don’t want to shill for anybody, including, LOL, ourselves.

Second though is the disease of paranoia, which seems unavoidable in social movements. Anybody who’s committed themselves to working to advance a cause, particularly voluntarily –and who has only very limited control over the rest of their social movement– is vulnerable to paranoia. It makes sense: you’ve worked incredibly hard for something you care about a lot, without any expectation of reward, so of course you worry that others could destroy what you’ve accomplished.

(Lawyer and writer Bill Eddy tossed off a fascinating aside in his book High-Conflict People in Legal Disputes – to the effect that groups often instinctively elevate the most paranoid among them into leadership positions. Essentially because although hyper-paranoid leaders may often mistake innocence for evil, it can at least be assumed that they will never do the reverse. As in Michael Shermer‘s TED talk: better a false positive, than a false negative that results in being eaten by a predator.) The upshot: social movements often exist in a kind of amplified state of vigilance, which is probably occasionally useful, but equally often just wasted effort, or carries with it an opportunity cost, or is just really destructive.

Personally, I would like to see the core Wikimedia community better support itself and its own success.

[1] From Gary Marx’s chapter “External Efforts to Damage or Facilitate Social Movements: Some Patterns, Explanations, Outcomes, and Complications,” in the book The Dynamics of Social Movements, edited by M. Zald and J. McCarthy, Winthrop Publishers, 1979.

[2] I should be careful to be clear here. First, Wikimedia’s got lots of supporters — and we’ve always had strong supporters in traditional media. I don’t want conventional media to see Wikipedia as a threat and I don’t think it is a threat: I think Wikipedia’s a useful complement, part of a balanced information diet. Second, everybody’s reaction to Wikipedia has gotten warmer over time, as Wikipedia’s earned credibility. But the original systemic pressures haven’t changed: they are still what they always were.

Since joining the Wikimedia Foundation, I’ve hired about 25 people. That means I’ve read thousands of CVs, done hundreds of pre-interview e-mail exchanges and phone calls, and participated in about 150 formal interviews.

With each hire I’ve –and the Wikimedia Foundation as a whole has– gotten smarter about what kinds of people flourish at Wikimedia, and why. The purpose of this post is to share some of what we’ve learned, particularly for people who may be thinking about applying for open positions with us, or participating in our open hiring call.

Let me start with this: The Wikimedia Foundation’s not a typical workplace.

Every CEO believes his or her organization is a special snowflake: it’s essential that we believe it, whether or not it’s true.  And when I first joined Wikimedia, my board of trustees would tell me how unusual we were, and I would nod and smile.  But really.  Once I worked through some initial skepticism, it became obvious that yeah, Wikimedia is utterly unique.

Viewed through one lens, the Wikimedia Foundation is a scrappy start-up with all the experimentation and chaos that implies. But, it’s also a non-profit, which means we have an obligation to donors to behave responsibly and frugally, and to be accountable and transparent about what we’re doing. We’re a top five, super-famous website, which brings additional scrutiny and responsibility. We work closely with Wikimedia volunteers around the world, many of whom are hyper-intelligent, opinionated, and fiercely protective of what they have created.   And, our role is to make information freely available to everyone around the world — which means we are more radical than, at first glance, we might appear.

None of those characteristics is, by itself, all that unusual.  (Except the super-smart volunteers. They are pretty rare.)   But our particular combination is unique, which means that the combination of traits that makes someone a perfect employee for us is unique as well.   Here’s what I look for.

Passion for the Wikimedia mission. This is obvious. We’re facilitating the work of millions of ordinary people from around the world —helping them come together to freely, easily, share what they know.  We’re responsible for the largest repository of information in human history: more than 16 million articles in 270 languages, accessible to people all over the world.   If people aren’t super-excited about that, they have no business working with us.

Self-sufficiency and independence. The Wikimedia Foundation is not a smoothly-sailing ship: we’re building our ship. That means roles-and-responsibilities aren’t always clear, systems and procedures haven’t been tested and refined over time, and there isn’t going to be somebody standing over people’s shoulders telling them what to do. People who work for the Wikimedia Foundation need to be able to get stuff done without a fixed rulebook or a lot of prodding.

That’s normal for all young organizations.

But we’re looking for more than just self-sufficiency.  We have found that a streak of iconoclasm is a really strong predictor of success at Wikimedia.

Wikipedia is edited by everyone: contributors represent a dizzying array of socio-political values and beliefs and experiences, as well as different ages, religions, sexualities, geographies, and so forth.  In our hiring, we tell people that it isn’t a question of whether working at Wikimedia will push their buttons; it’s just a question of how they will respond once it happens. People who’ve never examined their own assumptions, who embrace received wisdom, who place their trust in credentials and authority: they will not thrive at Wikimedia. And people who are motivated by conventional status indicators: a big office, a big salary, a lot of deference — they won’t either.

An inventive spirit. People who fit in well at Wikimedia tend to like new ideas, to be curious, and driven towards continual improvement. This manifests in simple, obvious ways – they read widely; they like gadgets and puzzles; they make stuff for fun. They are optimists and tinkerers.

Openness. At Wikimedia, we look for evidence that applicants have deliberately stretched themselves and sought out new experiences – maybe they’ve lived outside their home country, they read outside their comfort zone, they’ve explored other belief systems.

Openness means people like to be challenged. They like kicking around ideas, they naturally share and communicate, they’re not defensive or unhealthily competitive. They’re comfortable interacting with a wide range of people, and people are comfortable with them.

Lastly, we look for orientation towards scalability. The Wikimedia Foundation is a very small group of people.   It achieves impact by working through and with large numbers of volunteers – the millions of people around the world who create 99.9% of the value in the Wikimedia projects.   So in our hiring, we look for people who are oriented towards scale: who reflexively document and share information, who write easily and fluently, who take advantage of channels for mass communication and who instinctively organize and support the work of others.

If I ran Der Spiegel or Yelp or the ACLU, the traits I’d be looking for would be different. (When I worked at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the people I hired were quite different from the ones I hire today.)  And this list will change over time, as the organization changes. This is the list that works for the Wikimedia Foundation, today.

Every non-profit has two main jobs: service delivery (which is the mission work, the reason the non-profit exists) and revenue generation (how you pay for the costs of service delivery).  If a non-profit is lucky, the two are aligned and support each other.   But that’s rare — it’s more common for them to be completely disconnected, and often they’re in flat-out conflict.

When I started working at the Wikimedia Foundation in 2007, I wanted us to experiment with revenue generation.  So we spent about two years doing a bit of everything: making friends with grant-making institutions, cultivating major donors, developing business deals, and running various forms of online fundraising including our annual campaign, mobile giving, and so forth.

The stand-out winner was online fundraising.  It makes perfect sense: Wikipedia has 371 million unique visitors every month, and if even a tiny fraction of those people donate, we will easily cover costs.   And that’s exactly what happens.  New graduates give us 50 or 100 dollars for helping them as they go through school.  Little kids donate, or their parents donate on their behalf.  And all kinds of ordinary people around the world give every day, because they used Wikipedia to help them plan a trip, or understand a medical condition, or settle a bar bet, or get a job, or satisfy their abstract intellectual curiosity.  People use it and they like it, so they want to make sure it sticks around.

So, the “many small donations” model makes sense for Wikipedia, because it aligns fundraising with the rest of the Wikimedia movement: it makes it global, and it empowers ordinary people. It also enables us to stay focused on our own mission and strategy, rather than being pulled off-course by large funders’ needs and desires.   It makes us independent. It creates the right incentives: it supports us being accountable and responsive to readers.   It reduces the risk that donors will grow (inappropriately) to be more valued by us than editors. It’s scalable, it minimizes risk and it’s replicable and transferable – so, it enables us to help equip our chapter organizations to fundraise too.

So, newly this year, the Wikimedia Foundation is reorienting our revenue generation strategy towards small donors, away from institutional support and earned income. This is good: there are lots of happy consequences.  One is that I personally will have more free time.

Practically all Executive Directors complain that they spend way too much time fundraising. I never really felt that way.  Wikipedia has never spent a single dollar on advertising, and so it hasn’t necessarily been well understood.  I find people have all kinds of misconceptions about Wikipedia, and there are lots of interesting things about it that they don’t know: I’m happy to help them understand it better.

But there is an opportunity cost to fundraising – essentially, any hour that I spend thinking about donor cultivation, is an hour I’m not spending thinking about the work we’re trying to get done.

So I’m happy that beginning this year, I will have more time to dedicate to talking to Wikimedia editors, and thinking about the work Wikimedians are engaged in. This blog is part of that.  I plan this year to do more “office hours” on IRC, to have more unstructured time to talk with Wikimedians, and to spend some time writing here.

I’m looking forward to it :-)