How Building Strong Open Source Teams Is Like Raising Chickens


Dr. Margaret Heffernan, in her LinuxCon North America keynote, tells an open source story that isn’t about software. It’s a story about chickens.

If your organization is struggling to build teams that work well together, and it feels more like The Hunger Games than a smoothly functioning team, let the tale of the two chicken flocks show you the open source way. Dr. Heffernan tells how a reseacher used two flocks of laying hens to study how to breed more productive egg-layers. One was an average, nothing special flock, just ordinary hens. The other flock was composed of super-chickens, hens who were highly productive egg layers. The researcher bred only the most productive of the super-chickens, and did no selective breeding in the first flock.

After six generations, Dr. Hefferman tells us what happened: “At the end of his experiment, what did he find? Well, he went back to the average flock, and what he discovered is they were more productive than they’d ever been. They were all really healthy, plump, fully feathered, and cranking out more eggs than ever. The super flock was a completely different story. Because the super flock, all but three were dead. They’d killed each other trying to be the super-est of the super flock.”

“When Muir revealed his research to many of his researchers, their eyes lit up and some of them said, “We know those super chickens. We work along side quite a lot of them.” As I’ve gone around the work talking about this, I always see this little flicker of recognition in people’s eyes, and they’ll say to me, “That’s my company. That’s my department. That’s the team I used to work in.”” Their working life resembled The Hunger Games more than a creative enterprise, with the expectation that “If you get everybody to compete fiercely somehow the best will stagger to the top, bloody with feathers hanging out”.

Dr. Heffernan then describes a research project designed to answer the question “Why is it that some teams are so much better than others?” The answer is not IQ, nor individual brilliance, but several distinct characteristics including empathy, helpfulness, trust, and diversity. Another key trait is curiosity, which leads to people discovering solutions to problems in fields that are outside of their areas of expertise. Which, of course, requires other people to listen to them and take them seriously.

Listen to Dr. Heffernan’s keynote (below) to learn more about what fuels effective teamwork.

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