The Subcommunity Shuffle

When finding yourself in a leadership position, you’ve probably been tempted (and maybe even tried) to wrangle or squeeze a group of people closer together in hopes of a tighter community.

But maybe you noticed that it was as effective as squeezing sand - the community seemed to run right through your fingers. That’s because in spite of your best intentions, there’s never just one community.

Where communities come from

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 - poof - out of nowhere. Communities come from the relationships & connections between people.

It’s extremely unlikely that those people aren’t already a part of existing communities, long before a new one begins to form. In fact, existing communities are 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 - poof - out of nowhere. It needs to come from a seed. And of course…that seed needs to come from another flower.

Communities don’t appear, they emerge from other communities.

An unexpected lesson from a member

This simple pattern of emergence repeats itself often in communities, and in some very interesting ways.

In it’s first 3 years, Indy Hall grew from our original community of ~15 people to nearly 100 members. We’d expanded our physical, shared workspace. Our community changed in some noticable ways.

One of those such changes was that we started a Night Owls event on Wednesday evenings to help members with full time jobs be more active in the community (and of course, for those people who simply prefer notcurnal working conditions).

During one Night Owls session, I had a conversation with one of our original 15 members - his name is Jason - about how much he loved Night Owls. In the past, Jason had been an active coworker as often as 3 days a week (sometimes more), but in the year prior had dropped off a bit due to some life changes.

He remarked how Night Owls gave him his connectedness back, but then he also said something much deeper. Jason said:

Night Owls feels like old Indy Hall.”

This line bothered me a bit at first. I thought, “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 the facts, and what he might really mean.

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.

I realized that Night Owls had emerged as a “subcommunity”, and was already playing an important role in the growth of our larger community and I almost didn’t even notice.

Emergence should be a part of the plan

This epiphany - and the discoveries that came along with it - have became the foundation of Indy Hall’s growth plans for the forseeable future.

Maybe you’ve also begun noticing little groups forming in your community. 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!”

It’s normal, natural, and we’ve seen it be very powerful… with a little bit of guidance.

We no longer make decisions or act in a manner of Indy Hall being just one big community. Instead, we actively look for smaller emerging subcommunities and help them align with - and thrive - as a part of the whole.

The subcommunities we support still align with our goals and core values, just as smaller & more focused groups based on a specific interests or needs. It’s easy to spot and diffuse cliques - they’re the groups who never interact with anyone other than themselves.

But when subcommunities are healthy and grow, their “parent” community is healthy and grows as well.

With this outlook, we successfully exceeded a headcount of 150 members without noticable stress on the community. This number is significant because it’s Dunbar’s Number - a known limit of scale for maintaining relationships and therefore, a known limit for communities.

Without subcommunities, Indy Hall would have started experiencing an erosion of culture that many groups suffer from as they scale. Instead, we’ve continued to grow stronger than ever.

Fractal solutions. Fractals everywhere.

Remember how I said that the pattern of emergence repeated iteself? These “self-similar” models are called fractal solutions.

If you’re not familiar with fractals and how useful they are in problem solving, you can watch as this cheesy motivational speaker explains the importance of fractal solutions in about 2 minutes:

Another example of a fractal solution is in how subcommunities interact with each other, and the “macro” community from which they’ve emerged.

Remember that if a subcommunity is operating all on it’s own, avoiding interaction and consideration with any other groups in the community, that’s a warning sign.

Conversely a subcommunity that “plays well with others” is a very positive signal, and you should actively help & encourage these groups to continue this way.

Does this sound familiar? It should, because these same signals for subcommunities are fractals of the ones you can use to spot problems between individual community members, too!

Subcommunities offer resiliance

Communities are known for remarkable resiliance, and healthy subcommunities are capable of magnifying this effect.

While community members can easily connect to each other through these more focused subcommunities, the can also move fluidly between subcommunites and stay active longer in different community contexts rather than be stuck in the “bubble” of their subcommunity.

There’s even further resiliance in the fact that people can come and go between subcommunities without net loss for the whole. Even when small group disbands, it’s very, very rarely fatal for from the entire community.

In this way, healthy subcommunities make the entire community organism much more resiliant.

Questions for Designing in Subcommunities

It’s important to remember that subcommunities should be emerging from within your community. As they do, here are some useful questions to ask yourself:

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