Mark Shuttleworth: Five lessons on organisational change

Debian developer and software enthusiast on what it takes to get people to change.


Mark Shuttleworth is not your average IT manager. A few weeks ago, he posted a question on an Ubuntu list. Not an order. Not a policy decision. A question: "Should we think about...?" he asked. Collaboration, community and teamwork are part of his personal style.

Yet Shuttleworth, who founded the Ubuntu project in 2004 and is still an active member of its technical board and community council, has plenty of experience in technology leadership. In 1999, he sold Thawte, his company specialising in digital certificates and Internet privacy to VeriSign, and founded HBD Venture Capital and The Shuttleworth Foundation. He was the second self-funded space tourist; in April 2002 Shuttleworth was a cosmonaut member of the crew of Soyuz mission TM34 to the International Space Station.

His open-source contributions are laudatory. He was a developer of the Debian operating system in the 1990s, and in 2004 funded the development of Ubuntu, a Linux distribution based on Debian, through his company Canonical. According to the latest Evans Data Open Source report, 38% of open source developers use the Ubuntu distribution today.

Shuttleworth has personally made significant technology achievements and also has inspired volunteers to contribute to a community that's trying to make a difference in the world. Here's the lessons he's learned about what it takes to get people to change.

There are limits to the wisdom of crowds

The crowd can easily turn into a herd. When companies adopt the same tools, the same practices and the same suppliers as their competitors, it becomes more difficult for them to stand out from the crowd, and it introduces the risk that everybody assumes somebody else did the analysis to determine that they are on the optimal course.

Organisations with a clear idea of what they do differently, and why, are in a better position to pull away from the crowd. The current financial crisis clearly demonstrates the risk in simply following without being willing to question the fundamental value of an approach or an offering. Everyone assumes, "Somebody must have thought about this," when perhaps no one did.

In other words, if you do the same thing as everyone else, you are going to get the same result as everyone else. You won't stand out. Be conscious of the things you do differently.

It is necessary to harness both individualism and teams

Many of the best ideas, concepts, prototypes and innovations come from a single person's insight. You get these amazing bits of work from inspired individuals who have the freedom to act, when they have the tools and knowledge they need.

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