Hierarchies versus freedom

Jos has been getting very philosophical lately. One post that got me thinking about how odd KDE is (in a good way) was his one about working together.

KDE is quite unlike anywhere else I have worked, for fun or profit. Probably the closest analog is my involvement at university with the student newspaper, the Warwick Boar where I started off writing general features and ended up as Science Editor.

The Boar had a few similarities to KDE. It was staffed by volunteers, was successful (we won awards and stuff), diverse and quite large (I don’t know exactly, but well over a hundred contributors). However, unlike KDE, it was hierarchical. At the top was the Editor, who had ultimate power and responsibility. He or she made the call when someone threatened to sue for libel, or when one of the big national newspapers wanted access to one of our sources (it happened). Below the editor, each section had its own head, responsible for organising their team and making sure that their pages got done.

As a writer, you got told what to do and you did it. You could make suggestions and argue, but ultimately if your editor disagreed you could either accept it or go away. As editor, you had to get things done. If none of your writers turned up one week then you had to put the section together yourself and meet the weekly deadline.

Such an approach, with a named person responsible for every aspect of the project and sanctions (like getting sacked) for getting it wrong, meant that the newspaper always arrived on time and was generally of decent quality.

KDE is quite different. We don’t really have a hierarchy. Sure, there are people in each group that are almost defacto leaders – people listen to them and they push things to get them done, but there tends not to be one person whose approval you need to get to do something. There’s also no one to make you do things and no one who will have to sort things out if you screw up. This can be a good or a bad thing.

Costs and benefits of being KDE

Benefits of a hierarchy:

  • If a named person is responsible for doing something, generally they do it
  • Power lies with experienced people who are less likely to screw up
  • People outside the organisation know who they should contact (even if they don’t know a name, they ask for ‘the Science editor’)

Costs of a hierarchy:

  • If you are going to be held responsible for finishing something you get involved in, you may be discouraged from getting involved in the first place
  • Power lies with experienced people who are less likely to take chances, try new things and make things better
  • People outside the organisation are only aware of the leaders and they tend to get the credit (or blame) for the successes and failures of the organisation as a whole – so the people actually doing the work can feel that success or failure will have little impact on them personally
Cats playing on some tarmac

Herding Cats

Going back to my experience with the Boar and contrasting it with being an editor on the Dot: on the Dot we work by consensus and a few rules that we set. That sometimes means we’re a little slow to get things done because there’s no one person who has to do it. If everyone is busy then it doesn’t get done. However, it also means there are more checks and balances in place – I made a couple of major screw ups while working as an editor on the Boar because I didn’t have to consult other people, but on the Dot we rarely make really big mistakes that don’t get spotted before publication.

There’s also the question of time as a volunteer. If being involved in the Dot meant committing to getting things published within set deadlines and taking sole responsibility for that then I would have to resign tomorrow. We all have real jobs and other things to do and simply cannot make those kinds of commitments.


For me, KDE is in some ways flawed by its freedom – the fact that we can all, in theory, wander round doing whatever we want. Looking at it that way, it’s amazing we ever get anything worthwhile done. But in practice, the bonds withing teams and the consensus that we build mean that generally we do things pretty well. A more rigid structure would kill a lot of that and I think we would have a lot less people involved because it would be less fun and would require commitments that people simply cannot make.

Some more experienced gearheads sum up getting things done in KDE with the simple phrase of “herding cats“. Well to all our cat herders out there: thanks. You do a great job.

5 Responses to “Hierarchies versus freedom”

  • mutlu says:

    Actually, I don’t agree with some of the characterizations you made about hierarchical organizations. For example, you assume that “Power lies with experienced people who are less likely to screw up,” but if you have experience in the business world, you will probably agree that there are a lot of people who have important positions (and who decide), but who did not get there because they do things better (which is implied with the word ‘experience’). Instead, they often get there for historical reasons (they were there at the right time) or because they know how to suck up to their respective superiors.

    In my experience, both hierarchical and rather ‘flat’ organizations may fail, for a number of reasons. The question, to me, is less what the advantages of a hierarchy vs. a flat structure are, since KDE is and _has_ to be a flat structure, but how to recognize the weaknesses of a flat structure (to avoid them) and how to (possibly) improve the workflow.

    While thinking about hierarchies is interesting in itself, it does little for KDE.

    Hmm… I didn’t plan on being so ‘negative’ when I set out writing. Nice article, anyway.

    • Stu says:

      Heh, that’s ok 🙂 I’m not going to pretend this was a well thought out argument – I wrote most of this a couple of weeks ago, then noticed it when I was writing the post about how to say things and thought I may as well publish it.

      When I was talking about hierarchies, I was actually referring to the situation at the Boar (but I didn’t make that at all clear). In that case the positions were by election which worked quite well. Within most hierarchies in business I would agree that getting to a position of ‘power’ doesn’t imply competence.

      I agree with your second point. The main weakness of a flat structure is that if everyone is busy then important things can not get done at all. Having Claudia and Torsten around for things like the Join the Game campaign can help us with that though – not necessarily that they are in charge, but that they are being paid to make sure that things happen.

  • I agree a certain amount of anarchy can be healthy.

    Also, I’d forgotten that you went to Warwick. When were you studying here? I’ve been here for 5 years now so maybe I just missed you.

    • Stu says:

      I’d forgotten you were at Warwick too. I left in July 2004 so we probably didn’t have any overlap. Fred Emmot (of Slamd64 fame) was there for a while too.
      I guess I miss it a bit, with all that weird but kinda funky 60s architecture. Is the union finished yet? Last time I went it was still a big building site.

      • Yeah, I knew Fred, He was in the same year as me. The new union is finished (about 2 years late) and it’s serving our TopB needs quite well 🙂