This module explores what project leaders, or “leads” do on open projects, and the kind of mindset and approach this role requires.
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  • Read and watch videos on this topic
  • Do a short thinking/writing reflection exercise
  • Have completed previous modules in this section
  • Have a project idea

Paper and pen or computer for recording reflection


When you’re leading an open project, there are a few things you’ll do, listed below in the order they’ll likely happen on your project. Some of these practices (such as working with volunteers) aren’t so unusual, but in an open project the notions of community involvement and information-sharing become core, driving principles. When you work open you:

  • Invite others to work on the project– anyone with some level of skill who has an interest can pitch in. These are your project contributors, who volunteer their time and skills to your project. You’ll learn more about contributors in Section 3 of this training).

  • Provide information, help, and encouragement to any contributor working on your project, and connect them with their fellow contributors.

  • Encourage this community of contributors to participate in project decision-making and planning, and make these conversations as public as possible.

  • With intention and thoughtfulness, make both the end product of your project and the process you used to get there widely and freely accessible to all, for use and reuse.

Each of these points deals with making a project participatory (getting new people involved) and transparent (sharing information about the project widely, in a way that’s useful for others). Every project is different, and some of the points above may be less relevant to your project, while others will be at its core. Some projects will implement these elements slowly, while others may work fully in the open from day one. No matter how you do it, you can think of working open as a way of working that invites outsiders– those who might otherwise have little or no part in project work, creation, and decision-making– to become insiders in those aspects of the project. You can do this is by building trust in your community of collaborators.

Creating Trust on an Open Project, Abby Cabunoc Mayes

To recap, here are ways that you can build trust on your project.

To show that you trust and value those in your community, you should:

  • Listen to and respect the views and approaches of your contributors.

  • Provide contributors with truly important, meaningful work to do on the project.

  • Give up some control of the project to your contributors.

To secure the trust of members of your community, you should:

  • Be consistent and prompt in communicating with them.

  • Follow through and execute project work as planned.

  • Show that the project is solid, and worthy of their time and energy.

What Working Open Can (and Can’t) Do for You

As Project Lead, you also need to have a good grasp of the possibilities and limitations of working open, and realistic expectations of what it can (and can’t) do for your project.

As project lead, you need to ask yourself, “What’s the value of opening my project to community contribution and collaboration?” Below we’ve outlined some benefits of working open.

Working open can sharpen your thinking and help you find errors you hadn’t realized you’d made. Having many contributors on your project means you benefit from different approaches and ways of thinking– a contributor might offer a totally novel solution to a design problem that would never occur to you. Diverse perspectives produce a better, richer product. Contributors may also catch errors that you’ve missed. In the world of software engineering, this is expressed in the “many eyes” principle, or Linus’s Law: “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” In other words, the more people involved, the more likely someone is to spot an error or come up with a novel approach. And the process of mentoring contributors can enhance and deepen your own skills– you may find efficiencies or better ways of working as you help contributors solve problems or tackle new chunks of creative work.

Working open is a way to incorporate user-centric thinking in the design and creation of your project. Many projects– from web apps or tools to advocacy campaigns to learning materials– languish because they never find an audience. By inviting a broad community to contribute to your project, you can integrate your target audience into the development process to help ensure that you’re creating a tool, experience, or resource that meets their needs. Future users can be involved in decision-making about project design, direction, and features, as well as contributing project work. They can provide invaluable insights during user testing and evaluation of anything you make. In the words of Aspiration technology’s Allen Gunn:

“I believe in the ‘many eyes’ principle” — but also in the ‘many hearts and souls’ principle. Having many personalities, values and experience-sets involved in creating something intrinsically makes the finished product more robust and broadly relevant — versus, say, three privileged white guys in Silicon Valley kicking something out.”

Working open can allow your project to achieve its maximum impact. When you’re engaging contributors and target users from day one, your final product will launch to a built-in audience and be more likely to be supported, championed and sustained by contributors with a long history with the project. When you share your process and making ongoing work openly available on the web, others can build on your work, adapt your process or a part of your project for a novel use. Your project can have positive, transformative effects far beyond what you’re able to imagine.

Working open can help your project flourish and grow, but there are also many misconceptions about the practice. Let’s address a few common confusions about working open, and get at some of the challenges inherent in this way of working.

Working open is not a way to get free software engineering work or other kinds labor for your project, without providing anything in return. In a successful open project, volunteers will contribute time, energy and work, but if you open your project solely for the purpose of getting resources for free and you treat your contributors only as unpaid laborers, your contributors won’t stick around and your project will fail. Contributors on an open project should gain as much (if not more) than they give to the project, though not as monetary compensation. As an open project lead, you’ll need to figure out how to engage contributors in ways that are meaningful and valuable to them, appreciate and reward them, and create system of shared decision-making, mentorship, and skill sharing so that contributors grow and benefit along with the project. More about this in Section 3.

Working open is not a way to hit your deadline faster. On an open project with a sizable community of enthusiastic contributors, you might think that work gets done rapidly and efficiently. And in some instances that can be true. But you should be prepared for the reality that it takes time and energy build a functional community of people who work well together. You’ll spend less time working directly on the project while you coordinate contributors and contributions, a task that requires intention, mindfulness, and consistent effort. Again, we’ll talk more about this in Section 3.

Working open is not a way to avoid process or structure. Because decision-making is shared by the community and everyone pitches in as they like, it may seem like there’s no need to create roles on a project or define a system or series of steps to for contributors to follow– why not just keep it casual? Actually, good open projects should provide clear guidelines and a coherent process so new contributors know what to do and what to expect as they make their first contributions. It’s helpful to have roles– even if these are lightweight and somewhat flexible– so it’s clear who contributors can go to for help or who might approve or review a contribution they make. Any power structures or decision making processes need to be transparent, so contributors feel encouraged to participate meaningfully in shaping the direction of the project. We’ll discuss good, transparent project set-up in Section 2.

Assignment: Reflecting on Benefits and Challenges of Working Open

Reflect on what the benefits, challenges, and limitations of working open might mean for your project. For example, how do you envision your project specifically benefiting from more community contribution and participation? How do you feel about the need for well-defined process and structure on this project? Take about 4 or 5 minutes to write out your thoughts on this. If working in a group, you can write your reflections on sticky notes and then share and discuss together.

next: Your Project Vision  

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