Public Character

PublicCharacter.jpg organization structure is emerging, both formally and informally, and frequent contact at the workplace cultivates friendships as well as a social context that begs for support of common social graces and functioning.

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An organization is a social entity whose smooth functioning depends on more than professional relationships.

Much of what defines "culture" is the widely known but rarely spoken myths, tidbits, history, and interpretations of these stories. However, most professional organizations are built around the exchange of more structured information in blatantly public forums: memoranda, meetings, explicit policies, and executive pronouncements.

Yet the daily small pieces of information, details, and deep insights are the glue that hold the organization and its systems together. Furthermore, this information might include insights on shortcuts and other expediencies that serve the culture and its value system while falling short of the "letter of the law." The formal organization rarely has any organ that legitimizes the exchange of such information, yet such information is crucial not only to the smooth operation of the enterprise, but to its very survival.

Such information includes information outside of the primary business goals, but which is nonetheless important to the support of the work environment: where to find a good place for lunch, how to find the boss when she's not in the office, who knows how to fix the jam in the copy machine. It also includes meta-knowledge, how to find out where to find out certain kinds of information: who would know how to find answers to questions about the web server machine? who would know where to direct questions about personnel issues.


One or more people serve in the role as PublicCharacter to help social processes both behind the scenes and through social events.

There may be socio-technological role combinations. For example, an Architect role might spend time passing information between development coordinators who otherwise wouldn't take the initiative to talk with each other [BibRef-CoplienDevos2000]. We wrote up this pattern as "Shmoozing Architect" at OT '99.

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MatronRole and GateKeeper are examples of PublicCharacters.

From Jane Jacobs's ''The Death and Life of Great American Cities'', [BibRef-Jacobs1961]:

The social structure of sidewalk life hangs partly on what can be called self-appointed public characters. A PublicCharacter is anyone who is in frequent contact with a wide circle of people and who is sufficiently interested to make himself a PublicCharacter. ... His main qualification is that he ''is'' public, that he talks to lots of different people. In this way, news travels that is of sidewalk interest.

Jacobs goes on to say that, once the neighborhood recognizes a PublicCharacter, people consciously tell him gossip (meeting dates, lost items) that they want propagated. A PublicCharacter is a sort of living bulletin-board, with highly advanced search capabilities. ;-)

One finds a similar function in the ''Maven'' role in ''The Tipping Point'' [BibRef-Gladwell2000].

In our experience, large software projects usually have at least one PublicCharacter, and s/he is critical to project success. When you want to know who understands the persistence layer, you don't ask the architect; he's too busy. You ask the PublicCharacter, who won't know beans about persistence, but will know that Mary knows a lot about databases, and that she will either understand the persistence layer or know who does. (Triple-indirect knowledge!)

One interesting form of PublicCharacter is the Jester or WiseFool. In medieval courts, the Jester was a person who could make fun of the king with impunity. The king was not obliged to follow the jester's insights; rather, these insights provided stimulus for thought. A jester PublicCharacter can incite the organization to introspection and care; again, part of their qualification is that they are public. Such a person might be instrumental in facilitating workshops using creative techniques, visual meeting, system envisioning, and games—as well as reporting on user fears and expectations and being a change agent. This is also reminiscent of the "laughing uncle" configuration Mead talks about in her writings of Pacific cultures [???]

Project members are often penalized for being PublicCharacters — "Oh, Mary never gets anything done, she's always gossiping." PublicCharacters are a vital part of keeping large projects connected and successful. In a number of cases, we have seen that the disappearance of a single public character caused a major turn in morale and culture in the organization, ''to a much greater degree than the loss of a key technical person might do.'' The role is essentially informal; a project manager can't successfully assign somebody to this role. Rather, the role is something, like botyris fungus, that is recognized and taken advantage of when already present.

If you see a team member "always gossiping", consider whether the team member has become a PublicCharacter. Ask him or her a couple of team-related questions ("Where can I find out more about the garbage collection? Who understands the compiler tools"?) If he or she can handle these, as well as other questions ("Where's the best place to have lunch?" "How can I find Phil if he isn't at his desk?" "And what about... Naomi?"), you've found your PublicCharacter.

It is instructive to compare the PublicCharacterMatronRole, and GateKeeper; the PublicCharacter is related to, but different from, both. The MatronRole is concerned with the nurturing of the organization, and is inward-focused. On the other hand, the GateKeeper is outwardly focused; always looking forward for the next great direction. The PublicCharacter is somewhat in the middle of these two, but separate from each. An ideal project has each of these roles, filled by different people.