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The Importance of Lines

7 minute read
by Alex Hillman

Indy Hall is growing, every day and in more interesting ways. We think a lot about how to grow something like Indy Hall. “More members” seems like the obvious answer, but we think it’s not quite that straightforward. We’re focused on growing deep, not growing tall.

The difference is that right now, we’re confident in who we are and what we stand for today, and our maturity as an organization and a business comes from adding not just more people like who we already are, but by adding more people like who we aren’t.

And that’s where lines come in.

I’ve come to understand how important lines are in business – no matter what size your organization, or your profit motives are.

Here are two kinds of situations where lines are important:

Discovery of Others

Over the last 2 years, Indy Hall’s growth has gotten very interesting to watch and participate in. The places from which people show up, and the industries and expectations they represent, are broader than ever before.

Gone are the days where everyone builds webapps. We’ve got people from science, journalism, finance, insurance, sports, law, pharma/medicine, advertising, research, entertainment, music, art, film, business, and more.

Now, we don’t have EVERYONE from all of those industries (I think we’d need a bigger space, heh), but there’s at least one or two people representative of each segment. We don’t expect to be able to capture every person from every industry as a desk-using member, either. But for a variety of reasons, this diverse cross section of smart, interesting, and otherwise creative professionals have chosen to involve themselves with Indy Hall because they find it an attractive alternative to the way they normally spend their days working, be it because of space, place, people, or any other reason.

What’s important about this in terms of growth is that the diverse cross section of membership gives us a remarkable and unified vantage point on many, many different business and social communities in Philadelphia (and in some cases, elsewhere).

When we consider growth, we’re interested in depth and diversity. I’m interested in exploring the edges of our existing community, because we find that the most interesting and valuable things are found at these unusual intersections of industries and interests.

The fascinating part is that the “invisible lines” that bound Indy Hall are perceived differently by everyone. Every member takes a combination of their own view of  who is in Indy Hall’s field of vision, interest, and reach. Imagine drawing that perception as a shape.

Once that shape is drawn, combine it with their own field of vision, you interests, and your reach. A new shape is drawn.

As each member does this exercise for themselves, Indy Hall becomes an aggregate of all of those shapes and their overlaps.

The neat part is that with just a little bit of keen observation and inquiry, I can aggregate those shapes and overlaps into a master-shape, and at any given time, that shape is the total perceived field of vision, interest, and reach of Indy Hall.

The outline of that master-shape is a line, even if it’s not entirely accurate or if it’s changing often, and I can do interesting things with that line.

For the last several months, I’ve been spending my time exploring these invisible boundaries, quite literally walking up to them. Once there’s a line established, I can look for life on the other side. And I can ask the important question:

Are you on the other side of my line, or am I on the other side of yours? It’s an amazing exercise to go through, and one that you can’t really do until you acknowledge that there’s a line to be walked up to in the first place. In some cases, there’s an opportunity or an invitation that’s been there all along, but hadn’t been communicated across that line. In other cases, an explicit invitation or opportunity is needed, and so I go out of my way to create that if I can.

Over the next year, I’m spending a good amount of my time looking for new lines to toe up against and learn who is on the other side of who’s line. Ultimately, the goal is to move those lines, or remove them entirely. But without knowing where the line is in the first place, we can’t take steps to achieve that.

Defining Self

People want to be liked. I want to be liked, too. But the notion that you have to like everyone, or play nicely with everyone, or collaborate with everyone, is a crock of shit. The problem isn’t the element of liking, or the playing, or the collaboration.

The problem is everyone.

By identifying with everyone, you identify with no-one. You lack stance, you lack purpose. You lack definition.

Believe it or not, people like to be divided. They’re more productive. They have a stronger sense of context. They’re happier. They like to know which side they’re on, or that they’re even on a side. It’s an important part of someone’s identity, even if they’re not cognizant that they are pursuing it.

Another purpose of drawing lines is to NOT remove them, but in fact, to acknowledge that a line exist at all and that attempting to move or remove it isn’t yet the most valuable endeavor.

With the growth of coworking, for example, I used to find myself distressed when I met someone who was doing something that didn’t look like what I wanted coworking to look like. I spent time, energy, and emotion trying to convince them that what they were doing was fundamentally wrong, and that if they did that, they’d fail miserably. Crash and burn!

You can’t change someone, but you can give them the opportunity to change themselves. Telling them what to do differently wasn’t the most effective course of action – but showing them what we did differently and letting them choose for themselves.

Rather than defining people (including ourselves) by what we aren’t, I started to work harder at defining ourselves by what we are.

It became important to draw lines, and work to make it crystal clear that there was a difference. This is how we do things.

We choose a stance, we stand by it. We work with it. It’s not etched in stone, but it also doesn’t change without some degree of introspection and investigation. This is the basis of how Geoff and I make decisions about Indy Hall – we base the answers to decisions that aren’t obvious on what has the greatest impact and alignment with our core values. If, at any time, something doesn’t fit the core values we have three choices: we can change it to fit the core values, we can change the core values, or we can drop it entirely. That makes decision making (especially around partnering with other organizations and people) very easy and not about ego – but about doing right by the core values we’ve established and the stance they represent.

The downside, of course, is that this can become somewhat of a confrontation, and that makes people uncomfortable. But it also makes them think about the choice, and even aware that a choice exists.

And thats where drawing the line with the intention of leaving it there is valuable. To disrupt an otherwise status quo. To create depth and interest. And to better know your own stance.

Tip ‘o the hat to Amy Hoy, Thomas Fuchs, Tony Bacigalupo, and Sarah Chipps for the conversations that crystallized enough of these ideas to get them into one post.

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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.