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6/20/2008
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How Open Source Builds Winning Teams

Anyone who still thinks open source isn't ready for prime time hasn't been paying attention. Two events this week demonstrate how open source principles have put an entertainment juggernaut and a sports franchise at the top of their respective games.

Anyone who still thinks open source isn't ready for prime time hasn't been paying attention. Two events this week demonstrate how open source principles have put an entertainment juggernaut and a sports franchise at the top of their respective games.The first event was Joel Cohen's keynote remarks at the Red Hat Summit in Boston Thursday. Cohen is a writer on The Simpsons, Fox TV's long-running, irreverent, often brilliant, animated series. Among its many awards, the program has won a Peabody, 18 Emmys, and a Golden Globe nomination. It begins its 20th season this fall.

Cohen gave insight on how open source principals and collaboration have come to bear on the creative process at The Simpsons.




The Boston Celtics adopted the team-centric open source concept of "ubuntu" as their motto this season.
(click for image gallery)

  • Diversify. "Maximize output by maximizing the diversity of the group," suggests Cohen. The writers on The Simpsons come from unexpected backgrounds. A former chemist, mechanical engineer, and Wall Street lawyer abandoned the professions they trained for to put words in the mouths of four-fingered Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, Apu, Chief Wiggams, Mayor Quimby, and a raft of other citizens of Springfield. Cohen himself is an MBA with a background in sales. The group's diversity also is marked by a 30-year age gap between its oldest and youngest members, as well as a mix of genders and races.
  • Keep context in mind. "Not every great idea is the right great idea," cautioned Cohen. Young writers often show their inexperience by cleaving to a great joke. They'll go to great lengths to write a script around the joke, but in the end, said Cohen, the story doesn't hold up. You're left with a so-so script with one great joke.
  • Let go. Innovation "never ends" at The Simpsons. The first draft [of a script] is 42 pages. After nine months of revisions by the writers, who work by "building on each others' ideas constantly," having 5% to 10% of original material intact in the final draft "is considered something to be proud of," said Cohen. "Take your ego out of the equation."
  • The same open source spirit espoused by Cohen inside the Hynes Auditorium was evident nearly simultaneously, outside on the street. While Cohen was speaking to the Red Hat faithful, Boston Celtics fans were gathering behind police barricades to see the rolling victory rally of the new NBA champs.

    As I wrote recently, the Boston Celtics adopted ubuntu as their (open source) battle cry early in the season.

    "'Ubuntu,' from the African Bantu language, stresses collective success over individual achievement. ...Aware of all the attention their celebrity brings, [Celtics headliners] Garnett, Pierce, and Allen have gone out of their way to make sure the Celtics don't split into factions," wrote ESPN Magazine last fall.

    Ubuntu inspired them to work collaboratively, as a team, and it carried them to a record 17th NBA championship.

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