The Illusion of Control

One of my favorite sayings is “If you want to make God laugh, tell Them your plans.”

It’s not my favorite by making me feel good, since it’s usually something I’m reminded of after one of my own plans has gone kablooey and I’m sitting in a pile of smoking ruins wondering what the heck just happened. Then I remember: God just had a chuckle.

Your own belief system may differ from mine, but there is a lot of evidence in any worldview that Life, The Universe, and Everything is highly resistant to many (if not all) forms of control.

In the fairly rigorous world of software development, such a chaotic notion might seem counter-intuitive. From waterfall to agile, processes are usually in place that are designed to keep things from getting out of hand. Open source communities are not typically as tightly structured, but many successful communities have basic governance, onboarding, and communications practices in place.

The pervasiveness of communications has made it illusion of structure and order even that much more of an illusion. Robust distributed version control platforms, chat, and email make it possible to collaborate and know what’s happening in a project at any given point.

But is knowing something the same as being able to affect it?

Deep Freezing

This came up for me a few weeks ago, as I was attending FOSDEM in Brussels. The Midwestern city where I live was in the grips of a massive deep freeze, with ambient temperatures down in the -40 (F or C, take your pick) range. Early in the morning in Indiana, I got a text on my phone that the power in my home was out.

I immediately called my wife, and informed her that the power was out (she was still sleeping). I was able to log into our power company’s website and see that the outage was not just our house and that our neighborhood was completely affected. Meanwhile, my neighbor, who was vacationing in the Caribbean, was texting me to see if their housesitter and cats could come over and keep warm, since we had a fireplace and they did not.

But for all of the information and communications going on, I could not help my wife when she discovered the fireplace flue was stuck closed. Nor could I help her shut off the water for the house so she could get the pipes cleared even as the temperature plummeted. Over 2,000 miles away, and all the information in the world wasn’t helping me do anything.

The good news is, after evacuating to a house with power and heat for a couple of hours, my wife, daughter, and dog were able to return to house after the electricity was restored.

Control Is An Illusion

The point is, there is no way to predict every contingency for chaos-inducing events. The best you can do is try to learn from such events when they happen, so when they happen again, you can better react to them.

More importantly, as community managers, we have to be ready to throw out the “manual” sometimes and just do what needs to be done. If a system crashes, don’t spend time trying to second-guess all of the decisions that were made to date that caused this. Find the immediate cause, resolve it, and get the system back in place.

If an argument is spinning out of control on a mailing list, stop the argument. This might get you accusations of censorship, but if the conversation wasn’t constructively moving forward, then call a halt and then work to restart the main points of the discussion again, after everyone has had a while to cool off.

You can have all of the data in the world, but that does not guarantee you will be able to avoid problems with solutions that will have nothing to do with that information. That’s a big part of what management is: it’s not about control, it’s about coordinating resources to respond to any situation. If you’re lucky, those situations will be planned and predictable.

When they are not, don’t let data fool you into a sense of control. Adapt to the situation and affect the best change you can. Learn from what you did (good or bad), and you will be able to become an even better manager.

(Photo courtesy of Ervins Strauhmanis, underĀ CC BY 2.0 license.)

 

 

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About Brian Proffitt

Brian is a Senior Principal Community Architect for Open Source and Standards team at Red Hat, responsible for community content, onboarding, and open source consulting. Brian also serves on the governing board for Project CHAOSS, a metrics-oriented approach to ascertaining community health. A former technology journalist, Brian is also a graduate lecturer at the University of Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @TheTechScribe.

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