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“Policing culture” doesn’t work

8 minute read
by Alex Hillman

I write a lot about IndyHall on this blog, but I don’t think I’ve spoken at any great length about another local organization, Philly Startup Leaders. I’ve recently joined the organization as part of a newly formed advisory board, along with a number of other people from various local organizations that support and contribute to the local scene, as well as others who have been long-time fixtures and observe Philadelphias growth from another vantage point.

Philly Startup Leaders, like IndyHall, has modest beginnings: started by a couple of people who had or were involved with startups to discuss the challenges of being a startup in Philadelphia. Those early meetings, all held over beers as far as I’m aware, have transformed into a strong mission for the Philadelphia startup community:

“…above all else, startup entrepreneurs need each other.”

So what’s been fascinating to me has been watching IndyHall and PSL, two different communities grow alongside each other with similar purpose and vision. Lots of crossover has taken place. We share a number of members. Some of us have worked together. All good, healthy things for the ecosystem.

The PSL board has done a great job of growing membership, creating and evolving new events for the membership to participate in, crafting a manifesto, and providing the primary venue for community: the PSL-Talk e-mail list.

That e-mail list, a phenomenal resource for the community, seems to also be one of it’s greatest weaknesses.

There’s currently a flare-up (well, it’s currently as public as the e-mail list is…another issue…and it’s persistent in back-channels) about “self promotion and sales” in the list. When a new thread author, or an existing thread responder, posts something that is less about contributing information to the community and instead, advertises themselves as the solution to a specific problem, they receive a slap on the wrist (public or private, at the board’s discretion).

The response is usually something like this one, from PSL co-founder and president Blake Jennelle:

Steve, you could have sent this solicitation to Yasmine directly. Promoting your consulting services is not appropriate over PSL talk. This is your public warning as per the policy you see in the footer. If this happens again you will be removed from the list. The policy in the footer that Blake refers to reads:

The PSL Talk List is /not a sales channel/.  If you use the PSL Talk List to make a sales pitch to the community, you will be warned, publicly. If you do it again, you will be removed from the list.

I want to be clear and say that I understand why this rule is in place. Lists that are primarily solicitation, job postings, and the like do a lot of harm to the balance of “has” and “needs” of a community.

I liken it to the situation that IndyHall has with recruiters and job-postings. We wanted to make IndyHall a place and a community where people can be more effective at getting their work done. If the ecosystem becomes a place where people can come to get work, vs a place where people come to do work, the has/needs balance gets out of whack.

This is a tricky situation to deal with, for a couple of reasons. First and formost, the LAST thing I want is to be the person, or organization, that gets between a person and the opportunity of their lifetime.

When there’s contact from recruiters, startups, companies, etc about the talent at IndyHall and their availability, we explain that we’re an organization that provides physical space and community resources to our membership, as well as a highly collaborative environment that they can use to get their work done. Work exchanges hands all the time, but we don’t get in the middle of it. If you [recruiter/startup/company/etc] is interested in coming to IndyHall as a member, to use the space and community resources in the same way as anyone else who walks in our door, we welcome you!

So rather than police their intentions, which are to find a candidate for the job they have open, we frame it appropriately. There is absolutely nothing stopping anyone from walking in the door and joining IndyHall. So long as you can work from anywhere, pay your membership, come on by.

What’s nice is…because the culture is established by the existing membership, most anti-culture behavior sorts itself out. Rather than police culture, which is a very top-down way of looking at things, we carefully frame the situation.

If that person, whoever they are, feels they aren’t getting what they came there for, odds are, they came for the wrong thing. And most importantly, they won’t come back.

So, I came down on Blake’s response in the e-mail list where he slapped the so-called service provider on the wrist for an infraction that I’ll keep referring to as “anti-culture behavior”.

Someone who specializes in the topic of a question responds, and it’s sales. Someone who’s novice (or less experienced) responds, and it’s a-OK.

Does anybody else see the problem here? I think there’s a difference between letting the group know what you do (within the list, which is the only unified point of membership of PSL) and overtly selling it to the group.

What happens when someone asks about office space, and someone other than me recommends Indy Hall? What if that person is a member of Indy Hall? Is it better if they aren’t a member of Indy Hall?

It’s not me selling, but they’re selling for us (without my direct influence). What happens when somebody asks for help, like in this case?

Experts aren’t allowed to be responded to in public discourse? What does that accomplish? I know that a LOT of energy goes into keeping this list anti-sales, and don’t think that I don’t understand why.

Maybe if that energy went into focusing on what this list is, instead of what it’s not, the message would be clearer to people joining PSL. I don’t think the barrier to entry is to high or too low, I just think that you’ve put up the wrong barrier.

I admittedly painted some broad strokes, for the sake of illustration. But I made my point, and framed in the context of this post, I think it makes even more sense.

So Blake responds:

All Steve had to do was answer Yasmine’s question over the list and let his expertise speak for itself.

This would have been a much more effective sales pitch. Alex, when you share your expertise on workspaces, when Wil shares his expertise on SEO, when Aaron shares his expertise on marketing, that unquestionable adds value to the list.

It’s when you send a solicitation, beyond giving freely of your expertise, that people get annoyed. PSL talk is about helping each other for the sake of helping each other. That’s the culture that draws so many people to this community, as to Indy Hall. That’s the culture that we care so much about protecting and nurturing. That’s what PSL IS about.

Which, again, I completely agree with. Except this part:

That’s the culture that we care so much about protecting and nurturing.

I think it jumped out at me because I said something very similar in an unrelated conversation with Sean Blanda, co-founder of TechnicallyPhilly just yesterday.

Blake and the PSL board have always taken the approach of policing, posting signage (the footer warning), and warning/banning offenders.

What concerns me about this approach is that I don’t know if you can protect and nurture culture at the same time. By protecting it, you’re not letting it build up its own cultural defenses, which would truly be nurturing it into maturity.

My most recent post to the list encouraged Blake in two directions: first, to take some of the board-only-back-channel-discussion into a public forum, and make the most of the smart problem solvers he has as peers in his community. Second, to focus on what PSL is and stands for, instead of trying to keep out everything that it isn’t. Since, Blake has started a new thread doing just that, in which I’ll be sharing this post, as well as participating in the group discussion as much as is appropriate.

I don’t have the exact solution for PSL. I’m not a genie. And believe me, I’m far from perfect.

But I do know that policing culture is historically ineffective (culture’s going to go where it wants) and if the PSL board and the community it represents put more energy into nurturing than protecting, the solution would likely begin to materialize as a much clearer, and more sustainable approach to the problem.

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Hey, thanks for reading!

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.