Cathedral vs Bazaar People Management

TL;DR: The cathedral and the bazaar are two contrasting styles of people management, inspired by the open source movement. The cathedral style is more hierarchical, controlled, and standardized, while the bazaar style is more decentralized, autonomous, and collaborative.

The Cathedral and the Bazaar is the book on open source. It contrasts closed source software development (the cathedral), where a centralized and hierarchical authority designs and builds a well-defined system and open source development (the bazaar) where a decentralized community of contributors can browse, experiment, and collaborate within a modular and adaptable system. The book, argues that the bazaar model is more effective, innovative, and resilient than the cathedral model, and in many ways, brought the ideals of the open source movement to the mainstream.

I’ve written before about bringing software development methodology to management, so what if we apply this cathedral vs. bazaar metaphor to people management styles?

Cathedral people management

The cathedral manager is like the architect of the cathedral. They have a clear and detailed vision of what they want to achieve, and how to get there. They plan everything in advance and assign specific roles, tasks, processes, and standards to their team. They monitor and control their team’s work, and give them precise instructions, feedback, and guidance.

The cathedral style of people management is characterized by a high degree of control, direction, and standardization with problems and solutions being identified and defined in a top-down manner. Its advantage is that it can produce predictable and reliable results, especially in complex and stable environments. It can also create a much needed sense of order, clarity, and security for members of the team, who find comfort in knowing what is expected of them and what they can expect in return.

The disadvantages of the cathedral style of people management are that it can stifle creativity, speed, and innovation among knowledge workers, especially in dynamic and uncertain environments that require a lot of experimentation and adaptation. It can also create a sense of rigidity, bureaucracy, and hierarchy for the team, who may feel constrained, micromanaged, and disempowered.

Bazaar people management

The bazaar manager is like the organizer of the bazaar. Leaders in this style tend to have a broad vision, a flexible plan, and a flat network of roles and responsibilities for the team. The manager acts as the facilitator, the coach, and the enabler of the team’s work, defining goals and objectives and providing guidelines, feedback, and resources, while empowering the team to define their own tasks, processes, and standards, encouraging them to explore and innovate.

The bazaar style of people management is characterized by a high degree of autonomy and collaboration, with problems and solutions being identified and defined by the team. Its advantage is that it can produce innovative and resilient results, especially in dynamic and uncertain environments. It can also create a sense of freedom, empowerment, and ownership for team members, who can shape their own work, express their own voice, and pursue their own growth.

At the core of the bazaar style is the belief that team members are competent, self-motivated, and capable of aided self-direction. They encourage their team to explore their interests, share their ideas, and contribute their skills to further the team’s goals. This approach can also foster a culture of openness and trust among the members of the organization, who can learn from each other, support each other, and challenge each other.

The Cathedral and the Bazaar in Balance

As a manager or as someone who is managed, you should know which style you prefer, and which style your manager prefers. You may find that your team is a mix of cathedrals and bazaars styles, or it may even change depending on the scenario, and that’s okay. Here are some common ways in which the two styles can differ:

  • By industry - The self direction of the bazaar model wouldn’t be a good fit for the military given the stakes, while the rigidity of the cathedral model would not excel in a fast-paced startup given the need for experimentation and adaptation.
  • By individual - A more junior engineer is going to need the structure and clarity offered by the cathedral model, while a more senior engineer might feel constrained, preferring the freedom to roam and find interesting challenges that the bazaar model offers. Likewise, some individuals are less comfortable living with ambiguity, while others prefer uncertainty, and the opportunity for autonomy that comes with it.
  • By role - Outside of engineering, you might expect the cathedral model to work well for a line cook, where the recipe is well defined and consistency is key, while the bazaar model might work better for a chef, where creativity and experimentation are valued as they seek to create new dishes.

The key is to find the right balance between the two styles, and to be able to switch between them as needed.

Conclusion

The cathedral and the bazaar is not only a metaphor for software development, but also for people management. By understanding and applying these metaphors, we can create more effective, innovative, and resilient organizations that can thrive in any environment. We can also create more satisfying and fulfilling work experiences for ourselves and our team members, by aligning our preferences, goals, and styles with the appropriate management model.

As a manager, you should ask yourself: are you building a cathedral or a bazaar? And as an employee, you should ask yourself: do you prefer working in a cathedral or a bazaar? And most importantly, are you and your manager on the same page?

Originally published December 8, 2023 | View revision history

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benbalter

Ben Balter is the Director of Engineering Operations and Culture at GitHub, the world’s largest software development platform. Previously, as Chief of Staff for Security, he managed the office of the Chief Security Officer, improving overall business effectiveness of the Security organization through portfolio management, strategy, planning, culture, and values. As a Staff Technical Program manager for Enterprise and Compliance, Ben managed GitHub’s on-premises and SaaS enterprise offerings, and as the Senior Product Manager overseeing the platform’s Trust and Safety efforts, Ben shipped more than 500 features in support of community management, privacy, compliance, content moderation, product security, platform health, and open source workflows to ensure the GitHub community and platform remained safe, secure, and welcoming for all software developers. Before joining GitHub’s Product team, Ben served as GitHub’s Government Evangelist, leading the efforts to encourage more than 2,000 government organizations across 75 countries to adopt open source philosophies for code, data, and policy development. More about the author →

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