Innovation requires enormous Energy, Excitement, and Commitment

A conversation with Mitchell Baker, Chairman and Chief Lizard Wrangler, Mozilla
By Jo Grogan
Mitchell Baker is passionate about open sourcing, about the mission of Mozilla, and about the value of the freedom to innovate.

Baker, as the Chairman and Chief Lizard Wrangler at Mozilla, organizes and motivates a huge collaborative group of employees and volunteers throughout the world who are working together to breathe new life into the Internet through the development and improvement of the Firefox Web browser and Thunderbird e-mail client.

She meets the significant challenge of open innovation and motivating Mozilla’s employees, volunteers and consumers to work towards the common goal of open sourcing every day. Her philosophy is simple. Give someone a job to do and the freedom to do it. You can’t micromanage creativity and innovation. A line from her official bio says it all: She is “committed to an open, innovative Web and the infinite possibilities it presents.”

“People don’t want to be couch potatoes. People want innovative organizations.” Mitchell Baker

Jo Grogan (JG): What should be the role of innovation in today’s global economic climate?

Mitchell BakerMitchell Baker: The question isn’t what “should” innovation be, because innovation is what it is. Some innovations come out of the blue, out of the range of what we can see clearly. Innovation is the unexpected and unique connection of ideas that occur in the human brain. Innovation is disruptive, uncomfortable, challenges assumptions, and is upsetting.

JG: How do you encourage an innovative environment at Mozilla?

Mitchell Baker: We operate in the Internet marketplace and are mission driven. At the heart, we are a non-profit. We are about making advances, improving the quality and structures that allow many new ideas to bubble from within and outside, whether they are good for us or not. Our view of innovation is that it should be good for people, not necessarily good for our business.

JG: What’s the most difficult problem you have solved at Mozilla? Were there any surprises?

Mitchell Baker: The most difficult problem was to create an awareness of the existence and importance of our products and the importance of the browser to the overall Internet experience. When we started, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer was used for 90 percent of the users worldwide. People bought a computer and knew that you could click on the little blue “e” to get to the internet. We cracked the Microsoft monopoly. We improved the browser experience for people. Firefox now has 20 percent of the U.S. market and 30 percent of the worldwide market.

The surprises? There were two types of surprises. External surprises with results that people outside of Mozilla did not anticipate, and internal surprises that we at Mozilla did not anticipate.

Those outside Mozilla were surprised that the open source development model works, where the source code is made available and people can use it for other purposes. We built a public asset for public benefit with a combination of people who chose to work together. We did it with our employees, employees of other companies, and volunteers worldwide, for no other purpose than to improve the experience of users of the Internet. There was no immediate economic compensation for our product, because we are a very different company without a focus on the bottom line. Our focus freed us up to improve the experience.

Within Mozilla, we were surprised at how quickly the scope, scale, and timing of Mozilla’s growth changed with Firefox. Before, we had 1-2 million users. We were surprised after the release to pick up tens of millions of users. We’re seeing it now with Web sites. This happened because of the nature and the innovative ways in which we work. Open source, by its nature is transparent, shared, with many decision makers. This now means that there is interest inside and outside Mozilla in our innovative technology. The innovative and socioeconomic value of what we do has grown dramatically.

The open source mentality and impact is enormous. You see some of this effect in products such as Linux, Apache, Mozilla products, but if you look behind the scenes, you get an idea as to its impact. Google, EBay, Yahoo all use open source in their equipment and software.

The “Open Sourcing” concept has expanded to other areas, as well. We see it across a wide spectrum of industries and uses. I often get mail from people asking for advice on how to open source something, such as developing local solutions to global warming. In community based organizations, you earn your authority by how much you do and how well you do it to solve whatever the problem is.

I get some correspondence asking how to solve significant social issues and be financially sustainable. There is a growing innovative movement for causes with social and civic value as well as private economic value. While these community organizations can resort to fundraising, it is very limited for accessing capital. These organizations need a way to generate revenue to sustain the operation. The idea of sustainability has spread. It’s very hard to be financially sustainable and support the public, but the rewards are phenomenal.

What is gratifying about Mozilla is that it proves the point that people don’t want to be couch potatoes. They are eager to contribute to internet leadership and respect peer reviews. They put in enormous time and energy for shared resources.

JG: I wonder about the title of Chief Lizard Wrangler. How did it come to be created?

Mitchell Baker: At the time I came to The Mozilla Project, I was looking for a title that had a clear leadership role, not a normal corporate title. Because of what we do, the difference of our community, with volunteers, employees, and peers all contributing to the project, I wanted a title that was General Manager-like, but a reflection of our community. The first take on this was “Chief Lizard Herder.” My husband thought this was too passive, that it needed to be more active, so it became “Chief Lizard Wrangler.”

When you’re a leader of an organization such as Mozilla, the techniques you use have to be able to motivate volunteers and our 150 employees. If you try to motivate people through your position and title and management chain five or six thousand miles away, through “you do what I say,” they won’t show up. You have to manage, believe, and act in a way that is back and forth with all contributors. You need a set of people who believe that some piece of Mozilla is theirs.

You have to get it right with volunteers. If you manage and lead volunteers well, you are well down the path to managing employees. Our employees are highly self-motivated to spend time struggling to figure something out. They do this because they have the freedom to do so. We attract and select people who want to help figure out the direction of the Internet, the direction of Mozilla. You give them something to do and the freedom to figure it out. Our employees are contributors—they are motivated to build and enhance an open internet experience.

JG: What challenges are you trying to meet right now?

Mitchell Baker: We’re setting broad goals for Mozilla for the next two years. It’s difficult, because the types of things we do may not fit into a nicely measurable, concrete business school definition for our goals, directions, and aspirations. To come up with our goals, we’re using an open source model, so people who care can connect and find ways to participate. We seek the best ideas and institutionalize them. As a non-profit, we don’t have the same need to generate a Return on Investment that other companies have. We give up access to capital markets for this, but what we get is the institutional freedom to focus on increasing the value to the user.

JG: What, if any ideation/thinking/problem solving/creativity tools/innovation software are used for innovation at Mozilla?

Mitchell Baker: Our tools are plebian—what are used in every organization—e-mail, wiki, blogs—we have a massive generation of ideas by employees, consumers, and other developers.

As far as structural tools, we have a space called “Add-ons” at This is a very important aspect of how we innovate. The community uses this space to say what they want, some utility they want, and the techs are engaged enough to produce it. It makes it easy to contribute to make what they need.

Firefox appears as a product, but is also a tool to build other functionality. The after-market products for Firefox are enormous.

We also have Mozilla Labs. This is where we consciously seek to improve, encourage, and generate ideas not as close to the products themselves. is where we look further out. This is where we lay the intellectual framework for innovation. An example would be where a user knows how they want a browser to feel. They aren’t a programmer or techie, but a user. We provide tools for them to use to express the “feel of the browser” in whatever way they are used to—prototypes, drawings, frameworks for discussion.

JG: What innovation methodologies and training are used at Mozilla (e.g., Six Sigma, Edward DeBono)?

Mitchell Baker: Nothing formal, because we have so many different people, employees, volunteers, users, with our browser as the centerpiece, and people interacting through the browsers. We don’t want to get so headstrong that we think we have the only answer. We need to be exploring new methods. Our mindset is for constant improvement.

JG: Do you use outside consultants to help with innovation and the innovative process? How do they work with the teams?

Mitchell Baker: We use everyone. Our specific relationships are attuned to do it in “The Mozilla Way.” At, we have the Browser Concept Series. This is where innovative thinkers have their own space to get ideas so people can discuss them. We launched with tools and a set of expectations to mine those ideas.

Adaptive Path, a well known ideation consulting firm, developed a concept video for Aurora, for what future evolution might look like for technology, the browser, and the Web. We made the work and video available for background and discussion. We just told our users, “Here’s what a professional consultant says, here’s an informed view, put it together, research, teach how innovation works, and encourage open discussion and innovation.” They put together a great video for us.

JG: Do you have a suggested or required reading list for staff on the topic of innovation?

Mitchell Baker: No. We haven’t felt the need so far, maybe we should. What we do have is a huge set of voracious readers, so the information comes in. We circulate the books and our staff talks about them in blog posts.

JG: When you and your teams are working on a problem, or developing a product and hit a barrier beyond which you cannot move, what do you do?

Mitchell Baker: We look at how we’ve approached the problem before. Sometimes we need to expand the group, give a general idea of the problem in a public forum. We generate a lot of discussion. Sometimes we find that this gets us off the core idea. If it’s not about the core idea, we’ll go back and refocus, say we haven’t got the right answer yet, and issue a public call to action to address the issue.

An example of this is the Thunderbird e-mail client. We needed to do something different. With ten million users, we thought we could do something to improve their experience. We started the process through a public blog post. We wanted ideas from different organizations, users, volunteers, anyone. Wanted to know their thoughts. We had so much feedback and potential enhancements and improvements that we realized we needed something more robust to deal with it.

We created a separate subsidiary, Mozilla Messaging. David Asher leads this organization. I had known David for a long time, but the realization that he should head up this organization grew out of the public and open process we initiated to improve our product.

JG: We’re nearing the end of your time availability, and I wonder if there are any other thoughts on innovation you would like to share with us?

Mitchell Baker: We are successful at a giant, saleable level because of the number and quality of people who participate in our company and our goals. This piece is sometimes hard for people to understand. People want innovative organizations. They want the energy and ability to make innovative changes. The key to this part, to the synergistic flow of electrons, is that they have a scope of the world that is theirs, without micromanagement.

The question for companies is does this space exist in your company? Can you make it exist? If the organization has the ability and can be creative, then do it. Don’t pretend or encourage people to think that you are doing it if you can’t. Don’t try it if you cannot make it real. Innovation requires enormous energy, excitement and commitment.

JG: Thanks for a very informative interview.

Mitchell Baker: You’re welcome.

Feedback Welcome: If you would like to comment on the above article, or suggest other innovation decision makers for me to interview, please feel free to [CONTACT ME].

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Reader Comments

Hey mate, i would like to appreciate your intelligent ideas on innovations and hereby requesting you for new upcoming ones!
Posted by Mitchell Ngarangombe on July 2, 2014