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openSUSE:Why strategy

tagline: From openSUSE


Why does openSUSE need a strategy?

Consult the description of what a strategy is.

A strategy does answer a few questions about the future: Where do we want to go to? What do we want to achieve? Most notably, when talking about strategic goals, it’s really about deciding where we want to excel? Where do we want to be the best?

Human nature makes us wanting to be the best everywhere — and trying to achieve that is a good recipe for failure. A successful project will try to focus on a few areas where it wants to be best and leave it to other projects to be best elsewhere.

Is strategy an appropriate thing for an open source project? Isn't it a company thing that does not fit a community?

When companies work on a strategy, they do that with the ultimate goal to make money - by having a distinct position in their industry, they appeal to specific customers that are hopefully willing to pay for the value.

Not having a strategy is detrimental to the business - by just competing for doing the same things everybody in the industry does in a better way, the company starts in a constant fight for slightly better efficiency. Not a pleasant fight. If you ever talked to your call center agent in (some place at the other end of the world with very low wages) to get your phone line fixed, you might know what I mean ...

As an open source project, we don't try to make money as primary goal. But, we also have ways to measure our success: We want a growing community, more users and more contributors.

Does this mean we don't need a strategy?

The great thing about the open source community is that it has been growing constantly over the last 20 years. And the ability to grow further really depends on the ability of projects to provide an appealing environment that motivates participation.

So great, we don't need focus? We can just attract more people to do more things, right? And then the people will just do what they find interesting.

I'd like to give a few things to think about here:

  • The amount of people is still limited. Trying to be best everywhere is still not feasible, even within an open source project.
  • People that are willing and able to participate in a community are very welcome at many places - people decide to participate in a few communities at most - because however much fun it is, it consumes time that is taken away from the regular work, the families and the remaining spare time. When deciding what community to join, people will look at whether they feel welcome in a community, whether they can make a (visible) contribution, and whether the community has goals and a plan that they are aligned with. Or in other words - the community should be inviting and have a strategy that fits.
  • It is indeed the people who contribute that define the direction. Everybody is free to define her/his own personal direction. Yet, communities are stronger, when people share goals and work together to achieve them - the community thus becomes more than the sum of the participation. The good thing is that this tends to happen automatically; people like working with people that share the same goals and approaches. Birds of a feather gather together. The openSUSE community has developed certain strengths, see e.g. the SWOT analyis. Thinking about a strategy really is looking at the existing strengths and trying to define how they should evolve in the future - this way trying to help people to work in the same direction.


So it's really about direction and having different projects with distinguishable directions is a good thing. If every project really wanted to achieve the same things, why wouldn't you best merge them, except for practical reasons of manageability maybe?

Top down vs bottom up

Unlike in a company, you can't dictate strategy top down in an open community. So you can't define a strategy for an open source community.

Again, a few things to think about:

  • A company that just dictates strategy top-down is not very likely to succeed. Using the managerial hierarchy to define direction is very error prone and not very motivating to employees. Managerial hierarchy tends to work poorly also in companies. Often, there's people influencing their peers despite not having a role in the official hierarchy. So a pure top down does not only fail for an open community, it also tends to fail for a company.
  • A much better approach for a company is to build the strategy with input from many people in an organization, condensing this into a feasible coherent set of goals and then convincing most everyone that this is a good thing to do.

The openSUSE strategy approach

The strategy team never wanted to just impose a strategy on the rest of the community. It really wanted to facilitate a structured discussion with the people that participate and contribute to the community - because only this way a direction for the future can be set that can also be realized.

The team created a community statement and asked for public discussion of proposals and the submission of proposals to achieve that.

Yet it seems that we have not succeeded in convincing enough in the discussion yet. And we have not been perceived as working on an open process as opposed to a top-down approach.

We need to get this fixed.

Kurt Garloff <garloff@opensuse.org>.