If you’ve ever been in a community leadership position, you’ve probably been tempted (or even tried) to wrangle or squeeze a community closer together. My bet is that you found it to be a bit like squeezing sand - it ran right through your fingers.
Communities are challenging (and rewarding!) to lead for many reasons. One that I’ve noticed that is often overlooked is that there’s never only one community at play.
As you start
I don’t want to get hung up on semantics, but the notion that communities are “built” in and of itself isn’t totally accurate. Communities don’t spring up out of nowhere - they come from the relationships & connections between people. It’s extremely unlikely that those people aren’t a part of some communities before the new one forms. In fact, existing communities tend to be the primary source of new communities - not new leaders deciding that a community should appear.
Think of a community like a flower. A flower can’t simply decide to appear, it needs to come from a seed. And of course…that seed needs to come from another flower.
Communities don’t appear, they emerge.
As you grow
This simple pattern of emergence repeats itself, and in very interesting ways.
In just over 3 years, Indy Hall had grown from our original community of 15 people to close to 100 members. We’d expanded. Our community had changed quite a bit since the beginning.
One of the ways we changed was that we started a Night Owls event on Wednesday evenings for members with full time jobs who wanted to be more active in the community, as well as for people who simply preferred notcurnal working conditions.
I was talking to one of our original 15 members - Jason - about how much he loved Night Owls. Jason had spent a lot of time as an active member coming in 3 days a week, but had dropped off a bit in the year prior due to some life changes.
He was remarking how Night Owls not only gave him his connectedness back, but he also said something much deeper:
Night Owls feels like old Indy Hall.
This line bothered me a bit at first. “Doesn’t he like the new Indy Hall? What are we doing wrong? How can we make it better?”
And then I stopped to think about what he really meant. Night Owls was a much smaller, more intimate community than we’d grown to. It was 15-25 people every week, much like Indy Hall had been when Jason was reminiscing about. Night Owls had become a subcommunity as a result of Indy Hall’s growth, and was playing an important role in that growth.
This realization became the foundation of our growth plans moving forward. We could stop pretending that there’s only one big community and instead, look for smaller emerging subcommunities and help them thrive. If we helped the subcommunities that were a part of the bigger community grow and be healthy themselves, the “parent” community would be healthy as a result. The subcommunities we support still align with our goals and core values, they’re just smaller & more focused groups based on a more specific interest or need.
Maybe you’ve also begun noticing groups forming in the community that you’re fostering. It’s entirely possible that the though has crossed your mind, “Why are they doing this? What’s wrong!? This must be bad for my bigger community!”
But it’s not. It’s normal, natural and as we’ve seen very powerful if you embrace it.
Using this outlook, we were able to successfully pass Dunbar’s Number - a known limit of scale to relationships and therefore, true communities - without having a negative impact on the community. Without subcommunities, Indy Hall would have gotten stuck or started falling apart around 150 members. Instead, we’ve rocketed past 250 members since the spring and continue to grow stronger than ever.
As we looked even closer, we realized that we could design interactions between subcommunities the same way we look at interactions between people. If a subcommunity is operating all on it’s own without interacting with any other groups, that’s a warning sign. But when a subcommunity actively collaborates with other subcommunities as well as the “parent” Indy Hall community, that’s a great sign and we actively help & encourage them to continue down that path.
Finally, subcommunities can come and go without being destructive to the parent community. If a small group of people disbands, it’s very, very rarely from the entire community. This makes the entire organism much more resiliant.
The important part, though, is that people can easily connect to each other through these subcommunities, moving fluidly between them and therefore staying active in a larger community context than just the “bubble” of their subcommunity.
Acknowledge Subcommunities, Avoid Squeezing Sand
Our perspective on supporting our subcommunities has changed the way I see community growth. Now, we’re always looking for subcommunities that are forming and encourage them to form in a way that Indy Hall can nurture and help grow.
Our understanding that their growth will result in our growth has been much more effective, and has accellerated our overall growth substantially. It’s also made our growth more resiliant - people are active in multiple subcommunities within Indy Hall - as well as many communities outside of Indy Hall.
We get to continue being the “parent” of purpose and context, and a path for people to find the subcommunities that they love to participate in.
And we never have to waste time squeezing sand only to have it run through our fingers. We know that large tight-knit communities are actually large composites of smaller tight-knit communities, and that’s our model for growth as we take on our next 5 years.
Designing for Sub Communities
Online or offline, when you’re building tools for communities it’s important to remember that as it grows, subcommunities are going to emerge.
Some useful questions to ask:
How can you create a sense of intimacy while still providing a connection to a bigger context?
What is that bigger context, the reason for the community existing in the first place?
How many different ways can people be a part of that bigger context?
Can you encourage cross-subcommunity interactions? Can you discourage subcommunities from operating as complete silos?
This post originated as an email to the current students of my Community Builders Masterclass. It resonated with them as a real world example of the results of the course’s principles-in-action, so I thought I’d share it here as well. It’s been edited slightly for context. The word “Ambition” is also capitalized because of how it’s used in the context of the course as a piece of learning language. It’s NOT the same as the dictionary definition of the word.
Have you heard of GitHub.com? Even if you’re not in the software development industry there’s a good chance you have heard their name.
If not, no worries, there’s still a valuable story here for you.
GitHub is an unusual company in many ways, but at the heart of their success you’ll hear their team and founders refer to their unique culture. They happens to sell very good, very powerful software. But what they do and sell, in the context of this conversation, actually doesn’t matter.
If you visit their About page, you’ll find this above a photo of their team:
This is a beautiful Ambition. It doesn’t specify a single answer or antidote. It’s something that real people feel a genuine towards, and see a clear path to contribute to. It’s bigger than any one person. These conditions provide fertile ground for an emergent culture centered around the Ambition. Nearly infinite possibilities can take shape, so long as each is driving towards the common goal.
“Crafting experiences is central to what we do here at GitHub, and our interviewing, hiring, and on-boarding experiences are no exception.”
The story goes on to explain how Github designs their interviewing, hiring, and on-boarding to be consistent with their Ambition of helping people (in this case, their employees) build software together. It happens to be their business. But the employees aren’t motivated by that. They’re motivated by contributing to something bigger than them - helping people build software together - and that experience starts long before they’re even hired.
And not for nothing: GitHub’s success is measured both in impact and money, two things they’re known to generate at scale.
The source of this success, of course, is building community as a foundation element of their company culture and in their customer base, not an afterthought, benefit, or an add-on.
Recently, Steven started a series called “The Writers Room”. Truth be told, his last post is nearly a month old but has moved me so hard for the last month that I wanted to share.
Enter the Spark File
The Spark File, Steven describes, is a process/tool that he uses to collect “half-baked ideas” and then revisit them. For 8 years, he’s maintained a single document with notes & ideas with zero organization or taxonomy, simply a chronology of thoughts. He calls this document his Spark File.
Once a month, he revisits the ENTIRE Spark File from top to bottom, revisiting old ideas and potentially combing them with newer ideas.
I’ve adopted this process for the last 30 days and it’s had a remarkable effect. The most astounding part is how often I find myself writing the same thing in different ways. I’ve taken that pattern as a clue to explore a concept further, and see if it merits more investigation.
Your Crippling Compulsion, and the Solution
I was sharing this process with one of my co-conspirators, Tony Bacigalupo, while working with him last week and he said “this process is amazing, it sounds like a defragmentation for your brain”.
And it is.
This is particularly important because, as Tony pointed out, we don’t have ideas all at once and we certainly don’t have them in any particular order. Perhaps more importantly, we tend to either have a compulsion to act on our ideas immediately, or not at all.
This compulsion is blocking your greatest work
By using a Spark File, I’m able to “act” on an idea simply by writing it down at the bottom of the document. Compulsion fulfilled. But unlike the process without Spark File assistance, the idea’s destiny isn’t written yet. It has the potential to become something greater than an idea, and I’d argue something greater than most 99.9% of all execution.
Any of your half-baked ideas can contribute to the development of better answers.
Where Better Answers Come From
Once a month (or any time I wish), I revisit my Spark File notes and look for patterns and clues. I can find inspiration and most importantly, I can find answers, sometimes answers to questions I didn’t even know how to ask while I was jotting down my half-baked ideas.
I’ve found that the inspiration & answers I’m gleaning from my Spark File are tending to be more complete, overall deeper and more thorough than if I sit down to work on a single idea “in the moment” that I’m having that idea.
Reaping the Benefits
This has been especially useful while developing material for my new now in session course on Mastering Community Building. Download this free warm-up lesson now to find out more about it.
Start a Spark File of your own. Write in it every day.
Read through your entire Spark File it every few weeks (but not every day) looking for links and patterns.
Note: I’m using ByWord on my iPhone and iPad because it supports Markdown & syncs with Dropbox (referral link included), so I can easily edit and review from anywhere. Steven likes Google Docs, which is great so long as you’re connected to internet. ByWord lets me do Spark File work offline.
My “chosen” background was in technology - definitely not workspace, community, or any of the things I work on today.
I’d like to try to connect some dots between the things that have influenced my approach to what I work on.
Diagnosis & Systems
For a long time, I was more focused on building and diagnosing hardware, systems, and networks than on software development. As a result, I tend to look at the world through lenses of diagnostics & systems.
There’s a tendency in technology professions to want to engineer yourself out of a job, effectively make yourself obsolete by designing & building systems that can run mostly on their own. The difference between me and most of my colleagues was always that I was always a little more comfortable with my instincts. Probably because was constantly trying stuff and learning from my mistakes - and how to make mistakes so that they weren’t fatal.
Patterns In Life
When I take that systems approach and start looking at the “soft skills” side of my interests - things like organizational behavior, psychology and sociology, interaction and experience design - it’s really still just patterns.
These patterns tend to be more subtle, but the more I’ve observed and listened, the more I’ve learn and synthesized.
People watching has always been a pastime. As long as I’ve loved technology, people are infinitely weird in their predictability, and I love that “predictable weirdness” you can’t really get from technology but humans provide in spades.
It’s only recently and in hindsight that I’ve taken the time to do a bit more formal study and exploration to back up my armchair academics.
Always curious, never complacent
Another major influence has been my unwillingness to settle. It’s certainly gotten me in trouble here and there, mostly when I was spending my time inside of other peoples' institutions.
I’ve always loved the challenge of being asked “why”. I guess not everyone loves being challenged.
I’m careful to never let myself get complacent by always asking “why”, even (and especially) when I think I know the answer.
As I’ve ridden a strange roller-coaster of consulting practices, I’ve gotten increasingly adept at asking other people “why” as well, and I hope I never get bored watching somebody (re)discover their own reasonings.
The most powerful influence, has been mentors and friends who keep me in check. The people who carefully share their observations and listen to mine. The people who make sure I’m always asking why, and who challenge me to rethink my answers.
Collective action towards change can become a movement, but often, remain content being little more than animal instincts.
“Movements don’t emerge because everyone suddenly decides to face the same direction at once. They rely on social patterns that begin as the habits of friendship, grow through the habits of communities, and are sustained by new habits that change participants’ sense of self.” - Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit
Read this book if you want to create, lead, or participate in movements.
Special thanks to Amy and Ana who coaxed me into reading it myself.
I seek to understand people I disagree with. They aren’t crazy, they just have a point of view. I may never agree, but understanding makes me smarter. Sometimes (often) I lose patience. I can be rude and lose my cool. I fight feeling entitled constantly. Sometimes I think I’d be wealthier if I stopped fighting that entitlement, but I don’t think my life would be as rich.
Empathy is an increasingly rare resource, and one of the most challenging skills that I work hard to practice.
It usually requires meditation-like presence; as silly as it might sound, I actually try to separate myself from my opinion to make room for someone else’s opinion in an active attempt to understand and deepen my own understanding.
On the other end, my own opinion may not change, nor theirs, but in the best case at least one of us has a richer understanding on the other person’s point of view.
That understanding helps me be a better leader and a better follower, whichever the case may call for.
He had a good point he was making, and then he went ahead and mucked it up with App.net as an example of an alternative, and that’s when I realized that even he missed his own point.
This whole arguement is a red herring for real problems and, not shockingly, the solution is a misdirection just the same.
App.net “customers” bought a pledge, a promise, a dream of what “could be”. Not something that relieves pain. Not something that will make them their $50 back or more. And definitely not $4.16/month worth of either.
Watching arguments about what App.net is or isn’t, what it represents and if it’s going to succeed or fail reminds me of the scene in Batman Forever when Chase Meridian tells Bruce Wayne that the Rorschach blot on her wall isn’t an image of a bat; she explains that it’s nothing more than an ink blot, and that people see what they want to see.
“Do you have a thing for bats, Mr Wayne?”
People assume that whatever they see in the ink blot is what the artist intended when in fact…it’s just a blot, and their mind tricks them into thinking their perceptions are accurate.
App.net is a fascinatingly similar Rorschach test on the community surrounding it. It’s a mirror, it reflects back to them what they want and care about. And people are spending $50, $100, & $1000 at a time based on what they believe the creator intends to do. Dalton has stated his intentions, to a point, but most of the 3rd party discussion has turned to speculation.
My hunch is that some customers will end up getting their $50 worth in the fact that they got to be a part of the story - which is the closest thing to real value being sold. The rest won’t, and year 2 of revenue ends up being…well…not quite so shiny.
This fairy-tale carriage has a pumpkin-like future.
Dalton certainly marketed something to the pains that people think they have, but I’m dubious of the reality of those pains. It’s sympathy pains - the vast majority of the App.net backers have never been screwed by Twitter but they fear being screwed.
I don’t think Dalton has learned much from his mistakes of the past, except the pain of riding a media frenzy. And maybe worse, “startup mania” is just as much of a distraction from its own well being than its ever been.
By the way, I put my $50 in out of pure morbid curiosity of what’s under the hood. In retrospect, I should’ve donated to a charity.
1) Create inevitability around the projects you launch, wherever you launch them.
2) One way to appear inevitable is to set a lower minimum threshold for success. Setting a huge number feels bold and even macho, but it’s clear that your fans would prefer to pile on after you’ve reached your goal, not sweat or be begged to be sure you reach it in the first place.
I’ve taken notice to projects that lead with bombastic claims of being “the most”, “the best”, “the biggest, or "the first”. I believe that language has it’s place, and that place is behind closed doors, in the context of “the most/best/biggest/etc that we’re capable of”.
This alludes to another Godin-ism, which paraphrased amounts to
“Be the best in the world”, where best for you based on what you believe and what you know and where the world for you is the world you have access to.
Superlatives are useful for internal marketing & for boosting team morale, but lose their grip on reality for outsiders - your customers, supporters, and fans.
Unless you make them insiders
Here’s the fun part, and where Kickstarter’s stats start to lend credence to a different dynamic.
By bringing your supporters into the project, they can share in the beliefs that you believe and know and so that they can realize that they are a part of the world that you have access to, without having to use the bombastic claims.
And then when the superlatives come, it’s from your fans, not you.
They want what you want, just as much as you do (or more).
With that kind of inevitability behind you, you’ll start to notice a lot more success than failure.