The Mozilla model of participatory innovation

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Mitchell Baker, the chairman and former CEO of the Mozilla Corporation, seeks to explain how the free browser has come to rival Microsoft’s market-leading Internet Explorer in just ten years during an interview with the McKinsey Quarterly. 

With 120 employees, tens of thousands of external collaborators and 150 million users around the world, the ever-growing open-source Internet browser Mozilla Firefox has made itself a model for succeeding in cooperative innovation.

Baker, who started her Internet career in the 1990s as a software lawyer at Netscape Communications, acknowledges that without the “impressive” support of the volunteer community behind Mozilla, the browser “would die”.

In fact, 40% of the code does not come from employees, Baker points out. Sometimes the company hires from within the community, but “there are some people with a high degree of expertise and specialisation who you cannot hire, and we would never find them if we were not an open project,” she says.

The success of Mozilla, which in two years has increased its number of employees from 25 to more than 120, has made it a model for running innovative projects through open communities. This is also due to the unconventional work organisation of the company, says Baker. “Our decision-making process is highly distributed and unrelated to employment status, and some of the people who make decisions about code are not employees,” she says.

“Turning people loose is really valuable. You have to figure out what space and what range, but you get a lot more than you would expect out of them, because they are not you,” explains Baker, summarising in a nutshell the concept behind Mozilla.

“Look hard at whether there are areas where you can give up some control, because the returns are great,” advises Baker. “If you have a good group of people around you – people you trust – sometimes just stepping back when you do not like something is really valuable. Let the problem play out a little bit.” 

“The idea that a single individual is the best decision maker for everything, and should have ultimate control, works only some of the time,” she adds.

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