Leadership Lessons from Wikipedia — Wait. What? & Anyone Can Edit

This article is the first in a series of Leadership Lessons from Wikipedia.

Learning from the Chaos

Wikipedia is often portrayed as a chaotic place. Teachers warn students to not use Wikipedia, because — after all — anyone can edit. Vandalism has occurred — anyone can edit. Complex topics are covered in depth — anyone can edit. [Since the Wikipedia is, at its heart, an encyclopedia and therefore only a secondary source by nature. Therefore it, and all encyclopedias, should be questioned and used as pointers to primary sources.]

In the early years, back in 2004 when I first starting editing, we had our share of chaos. The premise was amazingly open and simple. A store of human knowledge that anyone can edit. Studies were conducted, showing that errors existed and compared¬† the Encyclopedia Britannica error rate. Vandals would come and blank pages, create attack pages, violate copyright and just try to use the ‘pedia as a web hosting service.

Wikipedia was one of many mass projects that were born in those years. We searched for larger and larger Prime numbers in Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search (affectionately called the GIMPS, which — by the by — just found the world’s 50th known Prime number in January 2018). We listened for extra-terrestrials in the SETI@Home Project. We transcribed out-of-copyright books in Project Gutenberg. These projects continue today, although they don’t have quite the reach as the ‘Pedia.

Wikipedia’s openness was built as a reaction to Jimmy Mays’ previous project, Nupedia. Highly orchestrated, the effort was often getting bogged down in bureaucracy. Therefore, Wikipedia began with only a few rules and as a feeder into Nupedia. Early editors dove right in, creating and changing. And mistakes were made.

Establishing Guidelines and Guideposts

As we built out the ‘pedia, we got to know each other and established certain patterns of behavior. We built teams, called projects, and agreed on conventions, and then guidelines. The guidelines are not rules per se, since “Anyone can Edit” remains a core tenant of the project. These guidelines evolved out of a shared desire to create a reliable repository of knowledge.

And the guidelines have matured over the years. They have been crafted, forged, tested and revised. They have grown into a store of collective wisdom and an amazing set of rules for teamwork and leadership. This article is the first in a series to explore how we can take the guidelines and apply them more broadly to leading teams. And while we’ll be addressing them individually, the system works as a consolidated whole. Replicating only some of the principles will drive only limited success, and may even take your team down a chaotic road.

Empowering Your Team

Let’s start with the foundational tenant — Anyone Can Edit.

On Wikipedia, anyone can edit any page. The project works not in spite of this tenant, but rather because of it. Everyone who views the page, spots an error, typo or omission can correct the mistake or add information and clarification. The next viewer can add, and even change the change back (e.g., execute a reversion).

Taking this principle to our daily life, we find that when we work in teams, leaders should empower every team member to contribute. Every member should have an “Edit This Page” button. On the factory floor, this button can be an actual physical thing that stops the production line. Everyone on the line has the ability to stop the entire line to make a small fix, ensuring that small problems or misalignments don’t mastitis into larger problems. In knowledge work, the button is open and transparent policy that incorporates feedback rapidly.

For this to work, empowered employees must have access to make changes. More importantly, this empowerment must extend beyond their individual area of expertise. Sound scary? Well, okay. Perhaps it is. But what are you scared of? If you’re scared that your employees may make mistakes, then put bumpers on the rails rather than speed bumps or road blocks. (We’ll discuss another foundational tenant — Assume Good Faith, later. Suffice it for now to say that you must trust your people.)

On Wikipedia, allowing anyone to edit means that many times changes are made to articles by people who aren’t Subject Matter Experts. And the robustness of the system ensures that substantial mistakes won’t endure for long. Allowing anyone to edit builds resiliency and leverages the Wisdom of the Crowd.

As one might imagine, this power occasionally will spawn an Edit War. An edit war happens when two or more editors revert each other’s changes. They can conceivably go back and forth ad infinitum. The guidelines direct such disagreements to be worked out on the Talk Page. Each article has its own talk page. Editors use these pages to discuss disagreements, put forth new ideas, and drive to consensus.

An empowered team must also have a place to air new ideas, propose changes and brainstorm with fear of reprisal or censure. Team members often learn best from their peers. Floating out an new idea or proposed change shouldn’t be strictly required though. Innovation suffocates in bureaucracy.

To embrace and tap into the power of your team, you must trust your team to do the right thing with the power you give them. The best way to show your team that you trust them is to give the power and the latitude to make mistakes.

What power can you give your team today?

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