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?