by Esther Schindler

5 Things Mark Shuttleworth Has Learned about Organizational Change

Jan 28, 20095 mins
DeveloperInnovationIT Leadership

The open source leader and founder of the Ubuntu Linux distribution explains the elements that can inspire innovation and change the world--or at least your small piece of it.

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.

Mark Shuttleworth photo
Canonical’s Mark Shuttleworth

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 specializing 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 Ltd. 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.

Organizations 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.

But to scale any operation takes the work of teams, and more often than not, teams of teams. Leaders inspire that flash of genius and also make those individuals want to work together. Great teamwork is a real skill.

Finding a way to nurture individual passion and pride while at the same time creating a spirit of teamwork is a hallmark of the leaders I admire most. Pulling off both of those in the same organization is magical but essential.

Tough times are good.

The scale of economic and financial challenges we face today should not be underestimated, and the effect on individual’s lives can be devastating. But disruptive events and periods are also an opportunity to re-evaluate and change.

Austerity creates pressure to innovate; necessity is truly the mother of invention. During hard times, we try to get more out of what we have and we assess investments with a different eye. Rather than simply doing “more of the same, faster,” we ask whether we can do things differently, and we create the opportunity for long-term improvements. Plus, innovators can use their slack time to work on new ideas (since some of them are laid off and living on their severance packages, or simply with more idle time at the office).

The survivors today will thrive tomorrow. They will have less competition, and they will have proven their agility and their efficiency.

Large changes are only possible when they have the potential to deliver radical improvements.

To persuade people to make changes, you have to offer them compelling and dramatic improvements. If you are asking people to change the way they work, it isn’t enough for a product to be slightly cheaper or slightly faster or slightly newer. One needs to deliver a 50 percent saving in cost and improved reliability (or efficiency or functionality) to create space for one’s product in a crowded marketplace. You have to be 50 percent, 100 percent better. Not just ten percent.

The earth from space is the most beautiful thing most people never get to see.

We forget the fragility of the Earth. It’s the only one we have, and we have an obligation to protect it.

From space, I was struck by one thing: there’s no buffer. On Earth, we see so much sky. But space is empty and dark and it can’t support us. When you see the planet as if it’s the size of a basketball, the atmosphere is thinner than your fingernail.

It’s also a small place, which we have to share, so it’s worth taking time to figure out how we can live together here more peacefully.