Paradoxes need split personalities

One of my friends once said I was the most “up-tight laid-back guy” he knew. It’s true. On the same topic, I’ll often veer wildly from one side to the other depending on the context. I’ve found this flexibility can be useful when dealing with paradoxical situations.

Tom Peter’s latest audio blog explores such a paradox in the inherent dance between centralized control and decentralized freedom, both of which create value in moderation, but destroy value in excess.

His comments are particularly apropos to conversations going on right now in both the microformats and the VRM communities. The issue both groups face is how to create and maintain communities that facilitate, engage, and inspire, instead of ones that constrain, alienate, and disenchant. Of course, in the beginning communities attract members because people believe in the future of the group. However, they stagnate and fail when members begin to believe the limitations and constraints no longer fuel or facilitate their interests.

Clay Shirky’s “The Group is Its Own Worst Enemy,” makes a compelling case that every group evolves to a point where it needs systems of governance. He argues that every community eventually grows to where it needs a means for explicitly managing the group’s own evolution. In the formation period, consensus and shared social norms can be incredibly effective, but they don’t scale well. On the other hand, if you start out with too much process, you can squelch an effort before it even gets going.

Microformats started with a core process that is still a hallmark of the community. It helps people focus their efforts and does a reasonable job of shepherding new ideas through to realization as community-recognized “official” microformats. There are some concerns about how scalable the process is, but equally so, the community is rightfully concerned about how changing the process or adding new bureaucracy could unintentionally undermine what has proven to be successful so far.

VRM on the other hand, is just emerging from a “good idea” to a working group. A few of us see opportunities to standardize a process, as microformats did, in order to focus our efforts and assure a shepherding mechanism the entire community can support. I advocated a strawman VRM process and it has already started to evolve a bit, which is great. At the same time, I am critically aware of the danger of too much bureaucracy and too many systems. My nature as a project manager battles with my spirit as an innovator. The right systems will help us be more effective. The wrong systems could sap our energy and engagement. Finding a good balance is hard.

So, I’m encouraged by Tom Peter’s discussion on this paradox, especially his exhortation that

You are in a losing battle unless you are totally, perpetually, viciously, and vigorously at war with the tendencies toward control, stifling, bureaucracy, overplanning, oversystems, too many metrics, et cetera.

So, it is with that spirit that I encourage fellow VRM folks to dive into the fray, to help define how we can streamline and accelerate our efforts while keeping the burden of
systems and bureaucracy to an absolute minimum.

This requires that we each also engage in the paradox of simultaneously championing those ideas and concepts we believe in while remaining open and supportive of everyone’s input. I know I’ve been wrong at least as often as I’ve been right. So, call me on it when you think I’m missing the point, and engage me with new ideas and suggestions when you see that it can be improved. And when I can, I’ll do the same for you.

For all you VRM folks (and future VRM folks), join me in a bit of split-personality engagement as we simultaneously build systems that will enable us while limiting those systems where they constrain us improperly. Everyone’s input is an opportunity to improve.

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