Use individual accountability to avoid the bystander effect

Low-angle photo of a bird in the foreground with a blurry airplane flying overhead in the background.

One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that when a team is a group of peers, an interesting dynamic develops. When a new request or task comes in, one of two things happens: nobody responds or one person always responds. The former causes potential new contributors to feel unwelcome and leave. The latter overburdens the responder and robs the others of the potential to contribute. In both cases, you end up demoralizing the team and shrinking the contributor base.

As I detailed in chapter 1 of Program Management for Open Source Projects, I accidentally ended up in the second scenario, taking the proverbial air out of the room for the Fedora Community Blog. When I became an editor for Fedora Magazine, I started to see the same pattern happening. This time I was prepared, so I waited. And waited. Yet I would still end up being the one to respond to article pitches far more than my fair share of the time.

It’s not that the other editors were lazy or thought I was better at it than they. But there was no individual accountability. It was easy to focus on all of the other things going on and assume that someone else would take care of it.

I knew this wasn’t sustainable—for me or for the team—so I tried to figure out a solution. What I came up with was the “Editor of the Week“. This set the expectations for what an editor should do: respond to pitches, moderate comments, lead meetings, etc. Critically, it didn’t make those duties the sole responsibility of one person, but it made someone accountable.

The editor of the week doesn’t have any additional authority. They’re not “in charge”. They’re just the person who, for that week, is the one the rest of the team expects to be more involved. It’s essentially like being on call. By using ad hoc rotations, no one has to be burdened with the accountability for too long. The team are all volunteers, so they often need to work around their day jobs or the rest of their lives.

Fedora Magazine is still using the Editor of the Week model, with minimal changes, a year and a half after I proposed it. I take that as a sign of success. It survived a nearly-full changeover in the editorial team membership. If you have regular duties shared among a group of equals, put something similar in place.

This post’s featured image by Sven Piper on Unsplash

Ben is a principal program manager at Red Hat, focused on the Fedora Project. He is the author of Program Management for Open Source Projects. Ben is an Open Organization Ambassador and frequent conference speaker. His personal website is Funnel Fiasco.

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