Nice shoes, but I still think you’re stupid

Posted by chetan on December 16, 2007 in madras, philosophy, work

My boss asked me a question recently, which really got me thinking: would it make any difference if I [my boss] wore slacks and a shirt every day? That is, do outward appearances at the office really matter that much? Could dressing a little better mean being taken more seriously?

It took me a really long time to answer the question, because to me it doesn’t affect how I judge a person’s performance, and it was difficult for me to look at the question objectively and realize that not everyone thinks the way I do. Everyone has their own criteria for judging performance or value. Which got me thinking about meritocracies and why they don’t work in business.

Many large, successful Open Source projects are, or appear to be (I’ll get to this later), meritocracies. The Apache Software Foundation (ASF) is a popular example. So what’s so different about open source software projects that a meritocracy not only works but seems to come so naturally?

Clearly much of it has to do with the voluntary nature of open source; when faced with an adverse situation in the management of a project you have two clear options when all else fails: stop contributing or fork. Both options carry an equally low risk, from an individual standpoint. The same two options are available in the business world, however the risks are much greater when one’s career and livelihood lie in the balance but the rewards are potentially much greater for forking — e.g., quit and start a competing product or service.

Even in the latter case, can a meritocracy really work in the long run? The incubation phase of almost any startup is entirely merit-based — from acquiring funding to competing in the marketplace, both will be judged on the merits of the ideas and the products or services the business is able to produce. But how long can this be sustained? Once a company grows out of it’s core group of people into a full-fledged business, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep the same level of excellence and far more costly to replace people at the upper levels. The stakes are also much higher for everyone involved, as noted by the ASF:

“What is interesting to note is that the process scaled very well without creating friction, because unlike in other situations where power is a scarce and conservative resource, in the apache group newcomers were seen as volunteers that wanted to help, rather than people that wanted to steal a position.”

So it becomes an issue of power and the ability to wield it. Bill Gates commented on a recent survey, saying: “Communication skills and the ability to work well with different types of people are very important too,” he said. “Software innovation, like almost every other kind of innovation, requires the ability to collaborate and share ideas with other people, and to sit down and talk with customers and get their feedback and understand their needs.” In other words, to innovate you need more than just technical ability and great ideas. You need the ability to communicate those ideas and work with people who may not always be as strong technically.

And that’s where strong leadership comes in. The problem with any large organization is that it’s almost impossible for everyone to be in complete agreement all the time. Even in a merit based organization like the ASF, consensus is not a given and people have found ways to game the system. Without strong leadership at the top you’ll have a constant power struggle to fill that void at every level in the organization, as different groups vie for control. (See also: IRAQ)

The best ideas can win out, but sometimes it takes a dictator.