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how long can organic communities self-moderate?

02 Oct 2008
by Alex Hillman

I’ve been involved in a lot of talk recently about community building versus community development, or even community design.

It’s mincing words and splitting hairs, but this is an interesting discussion to be having right now.

The bottom line is, you can’t really build a community, in the truest sense of building from nothing. Communities exist, together or fragmented. Many times, there are people doing things that could be done better together, but they don’t know about each other yet.

You can help a community develop and grow, and you can even guide that process to a certain end.

But you certainly cannot impose community. It’s like an organ transplant without any blood type matching. Even with it, it’s got a very high rate of rejection.

I’ve had a wonderful experience working on IndyHall with Geoff DiMasi for the last year and a half evaluating the existing community, interacting with it, and helping it mature. The process that we started is one that we share the hope lives long beyond us. The fact is, it was there before us, it just needed some nurturing at the time we came along.

One of the decisions we made in how we’d lead the community was just that: we’d lead the community, by example, and watch for other leadership to step up and encourage and foster that. Ultimately the end goal was for the effort to be sustainable. That meant that over time, it no longer needs us. This mastermind plan is part of Geoff’s overall education philosophy and something that I think is brilliant and important for everyone to think about.

So community related to “open source” projects, and not just code, has a number of very tangible examples. Coworking is one of them. Barcamp is another. These efforts have experienced MASSIVE growth in short periods of time, not just because they were good ideas, but due to the “open source” and starfish nature of their structure.

So the book in question that illustrates the Starfish model is by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom and is called “The Starfish And the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations“.

This is a TRAGIC subtext. The book explores decentralized organizations. Their structures. Their implications. Their strengths. Their weaknesses.

The book goes through several examples of successful “starfish” organizations and puts focus on “catalysts” as the people who effectively do what Geoff and I have done: provide a construct in which a “leaderless” organization can form.

What’s curious to me is when the leaderless organization grows to a certain size, and frankly, needs leadership. In the model that I described, we’ve intentially created a system in which new leadership can step up. That’s important.

But the “sleeper” point here is that organic communities and leaderless organizations and open source collaborations are NOT leaderless. They are NOT 100% de-stratified. If they were, they would not remain productive. Someone still needs to be there to pull the trigger, or clean up the mess. Right? I think that leadership is critical, even in “leaderless” organizations.

Also curious is, what the implications of community at the heart of a business versus community in other scenarios. I know there are differences is, and I’m thinking quite a bit about them. Communities and interacting with other humans are instinctive actions for us. Are business and commerce as instinctive?

So here’s the question that I’m grappling with: when a community grows due to it’s starfish nature and, later on, grows to a point where its starfish structure is becoming a hindrance, how do you identify the leaders? Who does, or do they identify themselves? What responsibilities do they have? Should there be decision makers? At what point does a starfish organization need committee?

I firmly believe in organic growth. But it’s the gap between growth and sustainability that I’m not sure about.

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Alex Hillman I am always thinking about the intersection of people, relationships, trust and business. I founded Indy Hall in 2006, making us one of oldest fully independent coworking communities in the world. This site is packed with the lessons and examples I’ve learned along the way. You can find me on Twitter, too! 🐦 Say hi.