Saturday, October 17, 2009

Taoism and COINs

The principles of the Chinese philosophy of Taoism have many parallels with the ways how COINs operate.

The way is the goal - Tao means “way”, and “way” is the cornerstone of Taoism. This is very different from Western philosophies, where the “being” and “truth” are in the center. In Taoism, on the other hand, “the way is the goal”, this means it’s not the solution, which is important, but the way to get to the solution. COINs achieve their big vision in many small incremental steps along the way. It is the way, the joy of completing small incremental steps together, which are the main motivators for COIN members. Working extremely hard in the company of likeminded people and reaching a goal together is immensely rewarding. This way of working under positive stress is similar to the concept of “flow” defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. According to Csikszentmihalyi, people are most happy when they are in the state of flow – a state of complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. Csíkszentmihályi describes flow as "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one.”

Let go – one of the core principles of Taoism is “wu-wei” or “non-action”. The main point is that one has to know when NOT to act. The underlying concept is that things basically will take care of themselves, if they only get the chance. For the individual, applying this principle is quite hard, as it means letting things go, and let them take their own way. We need to achieve a high level of self-assuredness and self-awareness to apply this principle. If we have reached this level, we will feel a sense of inner tranquility and self-emptiness that will allow us to let go. On the highest level, we will get rid of our own ego - becoming one with our activity - and do things for the sake of things, and not to further our own ego, reaching the state of flow. Among Linux opensource developers, Linus Torvalds, is famous for non-action and just “letting things taking care of themselves”. For individual COIN members it means that they are ready to let go of their individual idea and let the team take it over and bring it to completion. Because COIN members participate out of their own will – and not external pressure - they get the liberty to do whatever they think is right, and not what the boss or the company tells them to do.

Ethics – the three jewels of the Tao are compassion, moderation, and humility. The first one, compassion, also means kindness, and undemanding love like the love of a parent for her/his child. The second one, moderation and frugality, frees us from being driven by desires. If we are happy with what we have, and do not always want more, this will liberate us. The third one, humility, will help us recognize and be grateful for the contribution of others. In a well-functioning COIN, all three concepts come together. COIN members treat each other with respect, and respect the contribution of each member. They take care of each other, and through their focus on reaching their goal first and obtaining external recognition second, they are quite frugal in their demands. The last principle, humility, is the hardest to follow. This was already recognized by Benjamin Franklin in his autobiography, when he confessed how hard it was to acquire it “I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it.” He then goes on to describe how much easier it became to convince others when he presented his ideas in a humble way. The same should be true for COIN members, who respect the opinion of others and are grateful for the contribution of each member.
The principles of Taoism give us a great framework of how to work together in a COIN for the highest benefit of both the COIN and the individual members.

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