He roller coaster
He got early warning
He got muddy water
He one Mojo filter
He say one and one and one is three
Got to be good looking
Cause he’s so hard to see
Come together right now
Calcutta is a city of communities, something that becomes very visible during Durga Puja, a riotous festival held in the autumn. Every community, called a para, builds its own shrine to the goddess Durga, idolised in clay. That shrine becomes the centrepiece of the festivities throughout the six-day holiday, culminating, on the last day, in the ritual immersion of the idol in the waters of the Hooghly, following a frenetic parade through the city. It’s loud, it’s colourful, it’s very crowded, and it’s great fun. An experience not to be missed. When I was a child it also meant I was given new clothes and festival sweets, something I was very partial to. [Bengali sweets are something else, if you haven’t tried them then you haven’t lived].
In those days house ownership was rare except for the very rich, rents were often fixed for life, and job mobility was low. So everyone tended to stay within the neighbourhood, and community spirit was strong without being particularly visible. There was an active neighbourhood watch, an outcome of that peculiar, often Eastern, trait of people who sit on the side of the road and watch the world go by.
Geography has always been a strong driver towards the forming of community, as has religion or culture or for that matter any special interest. Communities tend to form around shared roots and experiences, interests and aspirations, a tendency exhibited in virtual as well as in flesh-and-blood communities. If you want to delve deeper into the topic of virtual communities, I would strongly recommend the writings of Howard Rheingold, Amy Jo Kim, Steven Johnson, Yochai Benkler, John Seely Brown and John Hagel. All underpinned by a healthy dose of The Cluetrain Manifesto and its writers Chris Locke, Doc Searls, David Weinberger and Rick Levine. I’ve read their stuff; I’ve met them; I’ve spent time with them; with some, I’ve even had the privilege of seeing them regularly and getting to know them. They’ve all been significant influences on my thinking about communities in general; my thanks to each and every one of them.
When the purpose of the community is driven by shared experiences or aspirations, it adds a certain permanence to the entity. Interests and aspirations change slowly, if at all; roots and experiences, by definition, are matters of fact and shouldn’t be vulnerable to change. So for the most part communities can be considered to be permanent, or at the very least long-term in essence. That long-term nature facilitates the working of the community, since people get to know each other, get used to each other, understand the conventions and rituals of the community, share the goals and ideals.
Around thirty years ago, I started noticing that this permanency wasn’t necessarily an attribute of all communities. It started with my interest in sport in general, and in cricket, soccer and golf in particular. Club form didn’t always translate to country form; there were often conflicts between the needs of one and the other, which meant that training together wasn’t easy. And teams of people who hadn’t played together that often couldn’t just turn on the collective sparkle on demand. I saw this happen most often in soccer, when collections of very talented people produced far less than their perceived ability. It was less obvious in cricket, and I suspected that it was because international cricket teams toured regularly, thereby resolving the conflict between club and country for the period of the tour. Golf was a different ball game altogether: the camaraderie shown in the Ryder Cup stood out as an example of how people who hadn’t played together often could still gel as a team. I reasoned that it was largely because they still played relatively solo games; fourballs and foursomes needed collaboration in strategy and tactics, but execution was still an individual responsibility.
I began to think of national teams as transient communities, coming together for a specific short-term purpose and then disbanding once the purpose has been achieved. And I began to think about what made them tick. Or not. As time went by, in the early 1990s, the idea of co-opetition began to gather momentum, and examples of companies coming together for specific projects, opportunities, bids, became common. Companies that would collaborate on one bid competed on another, often in parallel. As was the fad at the time, no such phenomenon went unjargonised. So we started seeing the term “the holonic organisation” to describe this temporary coming together of strange bedfellows.
A few years later, I joined what was then Dresdner Kleinwort Benson. And again, perhaps because I’d begun to become a transient-community hammer, I saw transient community nails everywhere. The M&A department was a closed community, separated from others by formal “Chinese walls”. Whenever an advisory opportunity arose, a “pitch team” was assembled, drawing from a plethora of disciplines, often including people who were not part of the M&A department. When that happened, the outsiders were brought in “over the wall”; once the assignment was completed, they returned whence they came. A classic transient community, one that operated with skill and at speed.
That really intrigued me, coming on the back of my earlier observations on variations in levels of performance. How come these clusters of people worked so well together, despite their different origins and interests? That was about fifteen years ago, and I’ve had the opportunity to study the phenomenon more closely since.
A few years ago, when reading The Big Shift and The Power Of Pull, I began to visualise creation spaces, the places where collaboration curves were encouraged and fomented, as enablers of transient community. The hammer-meets-nail problem began to get worse: more recently, when I delved into Gartner’s “extreme collaboration” model, I couldn’t help but keep seeing transience and community Siamese in their twin-like-ness.
I came to the conclusion that traditional communities, be they flesh-and-blood or digital, were at their core permanent or near-permanent in nature, and often single-purpose. This model has served us well in the past, and, in many respects, will continue to do so in future. But it’s not the only model in town.
Spurred on by the accelerating pace of change and increasing complexity, there is a growing need for multidisciplinary communities, inherently transient, with membership drawn from communities with diverse purposes, coming together for a single relatively short-term objective.
Transient communities. Using the parlance of the Big Shift, I started thinking of them as “flow” communities rather than “stocks” communities, dynamic rather than static in nature.
The more I’ve thought about them, the more I’ve observed instances in practice, the more I’ve realised that there are some core principles that make such “flow” communities successful.
And here’s where I’m at with those principles:
A flow community comes together to solve a specific class of problem, one that cannot be solved by traditional communities.
The class of problem is characterised by the need for multiple and disparate skills, know-how and discipline, usually across diverse cultures and geographies. But those are not the core characteristics.
The core characteristic of a flow community is that of having to align a complex array of purposes within the community, derived from and represented by the diversity of membership.
Flow communities tend to come together for a finite time, and then disband. Entry to, and egress from, the community, needs to be kept simple yet respect the separations called for by the diversity of membership mentioned earlier.
When they come together, the members of the community “leave their titles at the door”; for the community to execute successfully, this is what makes the difference. Disparate people explicitly ejecting their bag and baggage in order to fulfil a short-term purpose that has the support of their originating communities, despite contention, sometimes even conflict, in purpose.
As a result, the behaviours inherent in traditional communities (which, particularly in the enterprise context, often resemble company departments or groups) are minimised. These behaviours, very tribal in nature, tend to replicate the very reasons that the problem couldn’t be solved in the first place, and must be explicitly excluded from the flow community.
Lacking the permanency of interest and purpose, flow communities need to resolve interpersonal trust at speed and at scale. Tools must exist to simplify and ease the process: of finding the right person or people; of validating that person’s reputation and skill “by inspection”; of discovering, in real time, what is happening in the community; of providing feedback effectively.
Most importantly, the flow community respects the boundaries of the community for the duration of the assignment. People can be invited into the community; people can leave the community; everything happens under the Chatham House Rule.
There’s a lot more I can say on the subject, but I’ll stop for now and await your comments, in whatever style or channel you choose. I try and contain my posts to around the 1500 word mark.