Community Summit Discussion Notes: Is Succession Planning Possible in Open Source?

From the session schedule:

Key work for all leaders is investing in the next generation of leadership. This is especially true (yet especially hard) in free and open sourceOpen Source Open Source denotes software for which the original source code is made freely available and may be redistributed and modified. Open Source **must be** delivered via a licensing model, see GPL. software (FOSS), where you see hybrid concerns: not-for-profit/for-profit, volunteer/paid, skilled/unskilled. While our leadership group has expanded, it’s still unclear how to confirm a succession plan (either from an emergent or planned perspective).

Facilitator: Joe McGill (@joemcgill)

Notetaker 1: Kim Coleman (@kimannwall

Notetaker 2: Isotta Peira (@peiraisotta)

Key Points

What does the topic mean for attendees (what is important for the people in this space, at this moment).

This section of notes is a stream of commentary of what the means to the people participating and was used to get the discussion started.

  • “What happens if Matt gets hit by a bus”?
  • We have succession at different levels, but how can we transfer the knowledge from current leaders to the next ones?
  • How can we ensure that new folks step into leadership roles in the future
  • Ensure continuity in what is happening
  • Teams that have experienced big transition have found out that there was no succession plan 
  • Importance of being proactive instead of reactive when it comes to succession planning.
  • Challenge: when contributors are sponsored and the sponsorship ends, how can we keep up with everything?
    • When sponsored contributors leave, they won’t stay around enough to transfer their knowledge and the project stops
  • It means sustainability of the project. We need to know that we have a leadership path
  • Importance to attract younger contributors
  • Offboarding as an important part of the succession plan, but we don’t have an offboarding process right now
  • When talking about succession we might think of a more corporate environment, but this is not what the WordPress project is.
    • Can we think about succession differently in a way that matches the WordPress ecosystem.
  • Could we create a space for sharing institutional knowledge outside of the roles of “do the thing”.
    • If you want to be a team repTeam Rep A Team Rep is a person who represents the Make WordPress team to the rest of the project, make sure issues are raised and addressed as needed, and coordinates cross-team efforts., you should do X first.
    • Could we make a similar structure for a role based on sharing institutional knowledge.
  • Current systems for succession are potentially unclear, and when systems are unclear they aren’t equal
    •  They support gatekeeping.
    • This is not a judgment but an observation of why transparency is important.

Risks we are trying to avoid by talking about succession planning.

  • Communities that use our tools (users) suffer if we can no longer deliver them
  • Having people who are doing unique tasks, and not a collective effort with shared information/knowledge
  • Reinventing the wheel, burning resources, waste, relearning the same lessons
  • Recruitment / someone getting stuck in a role for years because no one else wants to step up
  • Situation with WPCSWPCS The collection of PHP_CodeSniffer rules (sniffs) used to format and validate PHP code developed for WordPress according to the WordPress Coding Standards. May also be an acronym referring to the Accessibility, PHP, JavaScript, CSS, HTML, etc. coding standards as published in the WordPress Coding Standards Handbook. – the project isn’t sustainable, the person supporting it can no longer support the project on their own. This is a clear example of the risk
  • Burnout
  • Guidance for contributors. How do we avoid people popping in and out and creating more work for teams?
  • “If I don’t do it, it won’t get done”.
  • Lack of new ideas when there is less frequent rotation of people roles

Succession Planning is Especially Important, But Also Especially Hard

  • You can’t replace time.
    • When a full time sponsored contributor leaves the team, that team leaves 40 hours per week.
    • In the Community team, the full time contributors are working to make the team completely independent of them so that if someone full time leaves, the team keeps going.
  • Succession planning is important but not urgent, so it often falls into a secondary position over “the work you have to do”. (working “on” the business vs. “in” the business).
  • Succession planning can be emotional. It requires you to think about “replacing yourself” and what it will feel like to no longer be in your role (that you’ve devoted energy to).
  • It is difficult to articulate and share your information with someone else.
    • Not only the knowledge of how you do the work you do, but also the interpersonal and management aspects that are difficult to pass on.
    • There is a lot of nuance to the leadership aspects, not just the “tasks”.
    • Prioritization
  • People get into leadership roles often accidentally. They don’t know how to write steps to plan for a new person in a role they never even thought they’d be in.
  • There’s confusion as to what is ok to do and what isn’t ok.
  • Succession planning (documenting processes) falls on the team rep, and they are already strapped.
    • There is some discomfort and ego inside of being a “leader” / leadership.
    • It hurts deeply when new people in a role repeat your efforts.
    • Some leadership positions are given by Automattic to specific people internally, and not necessarily after a community leadership path
    • No framework of passing on institutional documents.
    • No progression plan from team rep to leadership.
    • Concern raised that if a team rep role evolves into a mentor, the commitment would be too long and potentially alienate people from applying.
  • WordPress has done an amazing job of inclusivity. Creating a culture where everyone knows that we expect people to step up and grow. That is what’s going to create a future for WordPress. It’s not about titles. It’s about knowing that you’re moving from A to B, and what the path then looks like.
    • But also, the WordPress project is very flat. There is a big circle at the top held by a single person.
    • Aspiration for the sake of contributing to the project in the way that you want to make an impact, not for a title.
  • Contributors grow and feel fulfilled by mentoring others and getting involved in different projects.

What do we need to support a continuity of leadership roles? 

  • Documenting everything to make it easier to contributors to pick up
    • Reminder that for anything you are consistently being asked about, there must not be a document for it. Make one.
  • Identify the future and emerging leaders.
    • Understand what their motivations are.
  • Identifying areas that might be affected more deployDeploy Launching code from a local development environment to the production web server, so that it's available to visitors. if a contributors stops to contribute, and filling that gap
  • Template for documenting
  • Documentation for how the team(s) make decisions.
    • The openverse team has extensive documentation on how we make decisions in the team. For every proposal, the process is linked so that is clear for everyone.
    • They have a template for new projects, GitHubGitHub GitHub is a website that offers online implementation of git repositories that can easily be shared, copied and modified by other developers. Public repositories are free to host, private repositories require a paid subscription. GitHub introduced the concept of the ‘pull request’ where code changes done in branches by contributors can be reviewed and discussed before being merged be the repository owner. issues.
    • This required a lot of time but has been deeply beneficial.
  • Foster a culture of stepping up, stepping out in front that’s inclusive.
    • Individual reports that their early days in WordPress were confusing – who could do this? Who could do that? Then they realized, anyone can.
    • They felt that “those people do that and you don’t go there.”
    • Now they see and feel that there is permission to go from this step, to that step, to this step and it is supported and allowed.
    • Any misstep was just that they didn’t know, not that they were intentionally coloring outside the lines.
  • Instead of having only 1 person in a role of responsibilities, having 3 people can ensure support and avoid burnout
    • Marketing has had 3 team reps this year. With one stepping out and one falling sick, fortunately one was still around. This could be the standard for all teams.
    • 2 is a deadlock.
    • 1 is not sustainable.
    • A new standard for Team Reps: 2 people, what about 3 people?
      • When we recognize a person is doing a lot of work, keeping a lot inside, taking on a big workload, that we intentionally give that person two more resources.
    • Consider a strategy for an interim team rep.
      • If the 2 of the 3 reps are gone, a single person has no path to bring in an interim person.
  • Having a protocol in place to ensure that someone from other teams can support a team rep who doesn’t have co-reps
  • As a community we have lots of volunteers. If we have an individual doing a lot of work, how can we support them sharing the work with others. That way we may be able to create a situation where multiple people _could_ step up.

An Incomplete List of Areas of WordPress That Have a Unique Succession Plan Need

  • Meetups
    • Operating procedures / processes can get lost when leadership changes.
    • Baton wasn’t passed to a new person.
    • Veteran organizers can’t find new people who are willing to join the organizing team
    • Mentorship is very helpful in supporting meetupMeetup All local/regional gatherings that are officially a part of the WordPress world but are not WordCamps are organized through A meetup is typically a chance for local WordPress users to get together and share new ideas and seek help from one another. Searching for ‘WordPress’ on will help you find options in your area. organizers.
    • Every time that a community leader leaves the role after a big transition, the new ones have to start from scratch and they don’t receive the support they need to rebuild the community and bring it back to the success it had in the past
    • Current succession plan:
      • When a meetup organizer steps down, they are encouraged to find someone within their meetup to take over the role
      • If no one is interested, the meetup is labeled as needing an organizer on
      • If no one steps up, it’s taken down.
  • WordCampWordCamp WordCamps are casual, locally-organized conferences covering everything related to WordPress. They're one of the places where the WordPress community comes together to teach one another what they’ve learned throughout the year and share the joy. Learn more. Organizers
    • Nurture new people within the organization so that someone is ready to step in when someone else steps out.
  • Team Reps
    • Sustainability: How can the team be sustained when the team rep steps down.
    • Current succession structure:
      • Team leads serve a one year “stint”, after which candidates raise their interest and there is an election.
    • If after team rep, the next space could be (optional) mentorship, it would translate in at least 2 year commitment which is a huge commitment to ask to volunteers
    • Having 3 team reps ensure sharing responsibilities and avoid burnout
  • Plugins Team
    • Somewhat reactive experience that the team community experienced with Mika stepping out of the team. The time that it took to transition a person’s expertise and process into shared documentation.
  • Marketing Team
    • Loss of a sponsored team member “disappeared” from the team almost immediately. We could not acknowledge the loss of this person.
    • Their projects in the works were abandoned (we didn’t have a “This Month in WordPress” because the person who handled it was gone).

#summit, #summit-2023