Dealing With Open Source Conflict

Conflict seems to happen in open source communities. As I’m, once again, in an open source community with some conflict going on I wanted to reflect on some excellent lessons I’ve learned over the years. I’ve had the opportunity to be in communities during seasons of conflict.

Rather than keeping these reflections to myself, I wanted to share them so that others could reflect and hopefully build on some of these reflections.

A Product of Success And Diversity

Conflict is something that deserves a certain amount of celebration. This may seem like a surprise at first glance. But, when we look at what can cause conflict and some of the benefits (more on that in a minute) we can see some things that are worth celebrating.

Consider this, in order to have conflict in a community you need to have people involved, a diversity of ideas, and people comfortable enough in the community to share their conflicting ideas. When you have a diverse group of people – with varying backgrounds, life experiences, and priorities – they are bound to have different opinions on how the community should operate and the software should be built. When conflict comes from this, I think, it’s worth starting from a place of celebration at what caused it.

Benefits of Conflict

Sometimes we think of conflict as bad or something that should be avoided. Conflict avoidance is a common strategy for when it arises. But, those conflicts don’t go away. Instead, the issues are still there in the background causing other issues in the community. Avoiding the conflict doesn’t solve the problem.

And, there are numerous benefits to having conflict. To illustrate this I’d like to highlight two of them.

  1. More engaging meetings. Open source communities meet. The book Death by Meeting highlights a common problem in meetings of all kinds. That they can be boring and a waste of time. The book also highlights how to use conflict to make meetings more engaging and useful. I’ve personally witnessed this first hand in corporate and open source contexts.
  2. More creative solutions. There’s evidence that allowing members of a brainstorming session to critique each others ideas leads to the generation of more ideas. Many famous inventions and innovations came from groups of people who had open conflicts while they were developing them and that the outcome of the conflicts lead to better ideas and a better understanding of others views.

Don’t just take my word for it. There are numerous articles written on the benefits of conflict. For example, “The 10 Benefits of Conflict” in Entrepreneur touches on, well, 10 of them.

Leaders In Conflict Should Be Servants

Leading through conflict can be a difficult task. Leaders may need to make some tough calls where the difficulty can be compounded by the way open source communities are volunteer based rather than financial business hierarchy based. Open source community members often have strong feelings about being voluntold to do things they don’t want to do and, as volunteers, can walk away from.

A way leaders can have a positive effect is by being servants of the people in the community and of the end users of the open source project. A few actionable things come to mind:

  1. Try actively listening to people and understanding where they are coming from. If you had to debate for their position it would be useful to know enough about it to argue for it, even if you don’t agree with it. This can be helpful if you make a decision to go a different way because people will feel like they have a voice and it was heard.
  2. Understand, and be able to articulate with defensible information, the needs of users. The means understanding the different kinds of contributors (one form of user) as well as the end consumers of the software, most of whom are not involved in development. Why trying to lead people to a decision or consensus it’s helpful to know what needs are in need of being met.
  3. The direction chosen out of the conflict may often not go the way you initially thought it would. Ideas can change, grow, be built upon, and be replaced by other ideas. Leading people means enabling them to have an impact. Their impact will have an impact on the ideas and outcomes. Good leaders enable people to have an impact.
  4. Help people who engage in the conflict be better at what it is they do. This is a form of mentoring. If they need better people skills then help them with that. If they have a rough idea that needs to have a little more work done to it help them with that. And, if you’re not the best person to do that help them find good people to help them. This form of mentoring is a great way to earn honest trust and to help the overall situation along.

No Personal Attacks

Personal attacks should not be allowed. Conflict shouldn’t be personal. In many open source communities there are now codes of conduct to handle these situations.

It’s entirely possible for people to argue and debate competing ideas while leaving the conflict in the ideas rather than the people. A look at a lot of sibling conflict can highlight how this works, even though they may call each other names or do worse things sometimes which is something adults can hopefully avoid. Adults can keep the healthy parts of conflict while avoiding the childish behavior.

Thick Skin

To have conflict it’s useful to have thick skin. It’s not easy hearing someone with a better idea. Or, seeing the group choose one direction when you think yours is better. It’s also not easy to hear the shortcomings in your idea.

Consider this, if you hear the shortcomings of your idea it can cause you or others to come up with ideas to deal with the shortcomings.

Thick skin helps to keep the focus on the idea rather than people. When an idea is criticized it can be easy to take that as personal criticism rather than criticism of the idea. I like to remember that each person is valuable. And, that ideas not chosen help to shine a light on different parts of the problem and are additive to the solution making process.

Don’t Stop Here

This was just written by some guy on the Internet. You should probably learn and read from others as well. There is no silver bullet and it’s worth working to find what works best where you and the people you’re around are at. Here are a new suggestions for further reading: