Fellows Onboarding, and Onward…

This week, Mozilla Foundation director Mark Surman wrote a terrific post on the latest strategic plans for Mozilla, a way forward as we champion an open, free Internet. He reiterates the Foundation’s commitment to web literacy, to getting everyone reading, writing and participating online. But he also identifies Mozilla’s greatest assets, its leadership network and its advocacy engine, as the drivers of the next big, revolutionary wave in the open movement.

At Mozilla Science Lab, we’ve been thinking a lot about leadership lately, too. Our international network of study groups is growing, we held our first leadership summit in Toronto in September, and just two weeks ago welcomed our first cohort of Science Fellows to Mozilla. As we planned the onboarding experience for our new Fellows, a few key questions about leadership began to crystalize. What’s special or different about a Mozilla-grown network of leaders? What skills and competencies should those leaders have? And how do we lead “like Mozilla” when we’re working across communities as diverse as academic publishers, citizen scientists, tenured professors, and research study participants?  The onboarding experience we ran with Christie, Joey, Jason and Richard represents, in some ways, a very rough first draft at answers to these questions.

We might typically think of leaders as possessing a set of super-attributes– wisdom, courage, charisma– that magically add up to personal power and influence. But in collaborative work, leading isn’t about wielding one’s own power. It’s about creating a space where others feel motivated to think, work, and contribute at their best.  This kind of leadership is about relationships– understanding what motivates (and discourages) those in your community.  It’s about recognizing capacity and possibility in others, and finding ways to unleash that power. Our aim was to create an onboarding experience for the Science Fellows that encouraged this kind of leadership. Here’s what we did:

  1. We made it personal.

We kicked off the Fellows Onboarding experience with unhurried, 30 minute intro presentations by each new Science fellow on their personal histories, sources of inspiration, their own take on open science, as well as projects, goals, and challenges. We see our four Fellows as a brand new mini-community, and we wanted to give them a chance to really get to know and like each other. These presentations were unique and surprising: instead of the usual project pitches, we got glimpses of passions and motivations (it turns out the inspiration for creative, free-thinking work in science can come from many sources– from hip hop to skateboarding to a stint as a hermit in an Iowa cornfield). These introductions were a great start to the week, and we kept that approachable, social vibe going throughout by building in lots of downtime and opportunities for one-on-one conversations.

  1. We worked for each other.

In a Collaborative Project Development Workshop, we encouraged the Fellows to be actively, creatively involved in each other’s projects and processes. We got them talking and listening closely to each other, considering shared challenges, and brainstorming solutions to each other’s problems. The workshop included a section on thinking about the needs and motivations of specific users the fellows will need to win over or activate– whether they’re university administrators or medical study volunteers. Getting into the mindset of these users, developing empathy for them, and imagining how they might best grow into and along with a project is a key element of successful collaboration– again, it’s all about relationships. We’ll keep iterating on this very rough workshop format, but it’s a promising approach to getting folks thinking together and problem-solving quickly and playfully, in the open.

  1.  We shared Mozilla’s culture.

This notion of “leading like Mozilla” has its roots in the revolutionary history of the world wide web. When Mozilla open-sourced its browser code in the wake of its defeat by Microsoft in the first Browser Wars, it relinquished unilateral control and activated an incredible community of creative contributors. Mozilla’s particular institutional culture and way of working come out of this practice, and for newcomers (as I can attest) this way of working can sometimes feel baffling and even bizarre. We wanted to alleviate a bit of that culture shock for our Fellows, so we developed a presentation about Mozilla from a “user experience” perspective– not only what the organization aims to do in the world, but what it’s actually like to be at Mozilla… what that DIY, participatory, open, collaborative, distributed way of working really means, its joys and frustrations. (We also included a handy crowd-sourced glossary of commonly used and commonly confused Mozilla terms, like “dogfooding”, “bikeshed” and more.)

  1. We know we’re not done!

Our fellows have a busy 10 months ahead of them, and this relationship-building thing– whether among cohorts or broader communities– doesn’t happen overnight. MSL staff will be bringing this group back together several times in the coming months, including next week at MozFest. We’ll be working with them to  co-develop trainings on what we think–and what they told us– are those key competencies for open leadership: “working open” best practices, building and sustaining collaborative communities, teaching and facilitation, science communication and data storytelling for meaningful public engagement… and much more. (We’d love to hear your thoughts on what skills this any group of “open” leaders most needs). As we go, the fellows will be putting their new skills to the test in designing, prototyping and launching their open science projects. It’s going to be an exciting year!

We’ve collected the resources mentioned above, and more (including a great high level overview on the Science Lab’s mission and where it fits into Mozilla’s history)  here: https://public.etherpad-mozilla.org/p/fellows-resources.