Saturday, January 04, 2014

How to spot a benevolent dictator

There are many different types of ecosystems (consumer, provider, co-creation, two factor market etc) and the dynamics of any ecosystem are never static (unless it is dead). There are also numerous forms that a specific ecosystem can take, for example a free-for-all. a collective prisoner dilemma and a co-operative collective.

In the open source world, the most successful ecosystems tend to share a common key factor in the role of the benevolent dictator. So, I thought I'd write down a few lines on how you spot the benevolent dictator.

Who are they? A benevolent dictatorship can be provided by any form of entity. It might be a single person, a small clique, a company or even an organisation set up to govern the project. However, these entities have common characteristics.

First, they lead. They set the vision, the purpose and the technical direction. This can be achieved by an individual or a committee or even by use of community dynamics. For example, the technical direction could be determined by setting up incubation projects with a decision that those successful community projects will become part of the core. Such, incubation projects are a relatively effective means of identifying user needs. The key point to note is the benevolent dictator determines the means by which this technical direction is set.

Second, they set boundaries.  This can be through technical policies or ways of operating and governance including structures, hierarchies, appointment of roles, elections and order of succession etc. The benevolent dictator exercises control over these.

Third, they are willing and have the ability to say 'no'. For example, if the technical direction is chosen by an individual acting as the benevolent dictator then that individual must be able to refuse other alternatives. Hence, even if community dynamics are used then a 'successful' incubation project can still be rejected / cancelled by the benevolent dictator because the project is considered harmful to the overall ecosystem e.g. the development approach might be considered incompatible. Absolute authority derives from the ability to say 'no' and to exclude all other choices.

Lastly, they demonstrate benevolence. This doesn't mean that exploitation of the ecosystem doesn't occur but instead the long term overall health of the ecosystem is prioritised over shorter term commercial concerns and self interest. This is particularly difficult when a company acts as the benevolent dictator for a project which represents change to an existing business model of that company i.e. it has inertia to the change due to past business success. In such circumstances the company may tend to push the project in a direction of supporting its existing business models rather than focusing on end user needs and hence this is likely to endanger the long term health of the project.

If a project doesn't have an entity that shows those characteristics of leadership, setting boundaries, willingness plus ability to say 'no' and prioritisation of the long term overall health of the ecosystem over short term commercial concerns and self interest then it doesn't have a benevolent dictator.

It might have a dictator that isn't benevolent (which is not normally healthy long term as this tends to result in forking of the ecosystem) or it might have a benevolent committee which can't dictate (again not normally healthy long term as this to tends to create a collective prisoner dilemma or free-for-all). 

In my experience, I've yet to see a successful, purposeful and healthy ecosystem which doesn't have at the heart of it a recognisable benevolent dictator.

---- additional notes

1. For reference, privately I prefer to describe the benevolent dictator as the gardener of the ecosystem because the acts of shaping, nurturing, maintaining and harvesting are analogous. I also find that groups don't like being described as the benevolent dictator despite their characteristics pointing to them having that role. However, since benevolent dictator is in common use then I stick to that term to avoid confusion.

2. Absolute authority is derived from the ability to exclude choices. For example, suppose you have the right to say 'yes' but not 'no'. Then the right is simply one of blessing certain approaches, nothing can be excluded and at best you aim to seek a consensus. In such cases, anyone can do anything just some actions are blessed.  However, let us take the other extreme and assume you have the right to say 'no' but not 'yes'. Under such conditions you can exclude all other choices / actions bar the one you determine is the correct approach. The ability to say 'no' and to exclude is the bedrock of absolute authority and is essential to any form of dictatorship. Without it, you are forced to rely on creating a general consensus with the knowledge that anyone can do anything regardless and you are powerless to prevent it.

3. Political systems are the interplay of government, legislature and economic systems. Most of the systems we describe as meritocratic or democratic are in essence republics where members elect representatives to rule, mandate and enforce. The ability to do so depends upon the ability of the representatives to say 'no' to the members. If the representatives cannot dictate then you are likely to form a free for all with just the hope of an emerging consensus but no means of enforcement. Election does not also guarantee that the representatives will be benevolent, you merely hope they will be which is why it's important that matters of governance should be transparent. If you're lucky then your representatives will act as a benevolent dictatorship for the period of their rule. If you're unlucky then they'll either fail to be benevolent or fail to prevent a free for all or some other disadvantageous ecosystem forming.

4. There is always the hope that a continual consensus will form that no-one will break, no enforcement is required and no-one will ever have to say 'no' to anything. I've yet to see this successfully work in practice at scale. I would love to find a successful example where this is the case.