Midas Rule of Open Source Projects

You may be familiar with the Golden Rule, where we treat others how we want to be treated?

Or maybe the Petroleum Rule, where we treat others how they deserve? Yes, like petrol it's crude by valuable.

How about a new one, the Midas Rule of volunteer work and Open Source projects?


King Midas loved gold so much that he wished everything he touched would turn into gold. He got his wish but sadly... he got his wish and everything he touched would turn into gold. The fable had a useful lesson about greed and being careful for what you wish for, but I'm going to toss those parts aside and focus on the "ooh, you touched it" part.

The Midas Rule:

Whoever touches something first (takes initiative) and cares the most gets to decide what to do with it.
In other words, "yes you can, but you have to do the work." It's similar to licking or touching your sandwich so the other kids don't try to take your food. "Eww, you touched it!" Note this refers to actually poking, working on, and contributing to something beyond thinking or talking about it.

This especially applies to volunteer work because of the decentralized, collaborative aspect of herding cats. At the beginning of a project (like the Tridion PowerTools, but instead of cats we're a random assortment of species), excitement's high with a wealth of ideas and multiple directions the project can go.

It takes a paradoxical mindset to respectfully offer and accept contributions in a volunteer group, especially with less vocal, but equally relevant participants. Everyone should feel free to add and contribute, especially on things that they care about.

So when someone asks, "can we do this?" or points out "this is really important, let's not ignore it" I admit a bias for trusting fellow volunteers, especially for the aspects they either know better than the rest of us and/or care deeply about. The highest preference goes for those that are present, doing the work (which you're familiar with if you've ever been volunteered-by-committee in your absence). Even 7 Habits guru Covey admitted that he goes for win-win unless there's something the wife or family cares about more (I'm like this with food, I'm up for anything... up to you!).


  • Less applicable for major issues. For the highly-contentious items that require debate, the Midas Rule does not apply. For example, standards, project approach, and leadership require the longer drawn-out discussions that take in feedback and output some sort of win-win consensus.
  • Only lasts as long as the interest and contribution. The other aspect of such a rule is it's short shelf-life. Except for some legendary examples (Wikipedia, the Linux kernel, etc), interest by any one given member in any one given project will last for only so long. So although some memes never die, volunteers come and go.
  • In case of ties. Finally, when two-equally motivated contributors touch the same topic at the same time, either the universe implodes or it may possibly split. Which might explain why a search for "community organization" in my hometown results in over 42 million hits (updated 12/19/11).
So if you're thinking "I could do better" or "they sure look like they could use my help," I agree with you. Come on over, we need your help, but my vote goes for the ones that like poking the box and doing the work (see an example on the PowerTools source updates, but ignore my wiki-editing frenzies).

Update: (05-Nov-2011) A month into the PowerTools project, this rule has been doing well as a fun heuristic (fancy word for decision guide) to point to and joke about, but be sure to balance it with respect and appreciation for different levels of contribution. "Midas Rule!" is a good response to questions like:
  • "I would like to make add some shared functionality, what do you think?"
    Midas Rule applies! Yes, go for it!
  • "I started this work, but others seemed interested in it but haven't been around lately."
    Midas Rule works -- feel free to ask, but go ahead and own what you've started.
  • "What if we did this?" Sure, by the rule of Midas feel free to give it a try.
Like all simple or even powerful tools, don't take this too far to stifle creativity and the freedom to make suggestions. But when faced with lots of decisions, keep the Midas Rule in mind to go for win-win when possible or with whoever takes the initiative and cares the most for the smaller decisions.

1 comment:

  1. In terms of limited-resource-inspired "rules," I actually thing the Golden Rule should be to treat others how they want to be treated. Though I know I'm not the first to come up with that idea.


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