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A Roadmap For High-Trust Communities

Here’s a short clip introducing Microsolidarity as a roadmap for high-trust communities.

This was part of a presentation to Wasan, a network of community builders, hosted by Fabian Pfortmueller; contact him for more info.

More about microsolidarity.


Richard D. Bartlett: Fabian mentioned Enspiral. So that’s where I wanted to start my story, is this really high-trust community. And that word community is really overused, maybe, or is overloaded with different definitions. So, for me, my experience of the Enspiral community is what I have in mind when I talk about community, it’s within that group.

I found people that I can call up and say, “Hey, I need to borrow $1,000 ’cause my car has exploded.” And they say, “Sure.” You know, that sort of like instantaneous, no questions asked, “I’m here to support you in a practical way.”.

I also found people who were willing to go along with my weird ideas, and collaborate, and test out until we find out, “Yes, we do have a business here. Yes, we’re going to have a startup and I’ve got my co-founders ready to roll.” And again, they’re not worried about the money side of things, right? They’re just there to support me, and they’re excited to collaborate. So I found my co-founders there.

And probably the most important ingredient for me of Ensprial is our habit – our practice – of going on retreat at least once a year, preferably twice a year. And in that deep space of connection, over years – you know, it’s been more than ten years for me now – returning to that same circle, and having space for really deep dialog and mutual disclosure, getting to know each other, and our deepest ways, sharing stories that I’ve never shared with anyone else, telling parts of my life I’ve never told anyone else. That context is, for me, the ideal context for growth. It’s been it’s been the incubator for all of the good things that have happened in my life. All of my growth and development has happened inside of that community.

And I attribute that mostly to that level of trust that we have, that it’s a really peculiarly high level of trust that we have in that community. And the thing about trust is that it doesn’t scale. Like, Enspiral always been between 100 and 200 people, and we have to have a lot of practices designed to kind of filter in the right people, and filter in the right behaviors, and encourage the right behaviors. And it wouldn’t work if we had 10,000 people. It just would be a different thing. You know, we can’t have that same level of sort of almost like familiarity with each other at that scale.

So I’m sure lots of people want this kind of community in their life. They want this sense of connection, and mutual support, and care, and inspiration, and all those things. But we can’t just invite them all to Enspiral. It doesn’t work. So that’s where microsolidarity comes in. This is a roadmap to build more of these high trust communities – and “roadmap” is a hard word, because I want whatever community to be responsive to its local context. So it’s not like a blueprint where I say, “This is how you should organize, this should be your principles and values.” That doesn’t really work. But I’m looking for the minimum set of patterns that get people set up on that upward spiral of trust building.

So, before I get into the theory side of microsolidarity, I think I have to mention as well, if so many people want community – we want collaboration, we want more connection – why would we need a framework? Surely, it’s just part of our genetic inheritance as mammals, and we should be able to just do it. I don’t know about you, but my experience is that lots of collaborative groups suck pretty bad. You know, it doesn’t work that great, and so why is that?

It’s a deep question. I could spend hours talking about it, but the conclusion that I’ve come to is that for a very long time we have been in a culture that over more than a century, I think, has been pushing us more, and more, and more towards individualism, and materialism, and competition, and hierarchy – disconnection. And we’ve been conditioned to act as these individuals, and then we try to come together as a group, we try to be collaborative, but it’s like we were kind of raised for something else, you know? And so, I think we need these developmental contexts where we can unlearn and let go of old habits, of competition and separation, and just the anxieties of being in a group, and learn new habits of being in connection with each other. So that’s what we’re trying to do with the microsolidarity methodology.

I’m going to share my screen just to download basically two pieces of theory. Like I said, I love talking, but I’m just going to do two out of the many pieces of theory, and then we can talk about it together.

So, the first picture that I want you to think about is scale. And I basically think about groups in terms of scale and tempo, maybe because I’m a musician. If you think about how groups are made of smaller groups – so this group of 500 people is made up of groups of 150 and 50, and 15. These numbers here come from Robin Dunbar, who’s the anthropologist/sociologist. And in popular culture, we have this idea of Dunbar’s number, which is a way of a simplified understanding of his work. I think what Dunbar was basically saying is there’s Dunbar’s numbers – it’s plural – and that each of these scales – 5, 15, 50, 150, and it goes on and on, and just continues indefinitely – that at each of these scales, the human groups form different kinds of organisms. And you’ll see this in patterns of traditional community settlements, and you’ll see it in the way that armies organize all over the world. That, not precisely at these numbers, but there are these kind of steps up the ladder of scale, and that groups of different size are good for different things.

And that really is the main insight – which is not that mind-blowing – but that’s the main insight of microsolidarity, is that groups of different size are good for different things. And so that means when we’re doing community building, or when we’re trying to shift the culture in an organization, or when we’re trying to build a network, we have to know what size to operate at. So, in my work with organizations – some of them 20,000 people – the way to have a great organization is to have lots of great teams. So the way that we operate is to find one team – four or five people – and bring them into a really high state of safety, and inspiration, and courage. And then once that one team is working, we recruit another couple, and then another couple, and it spreads in these stepwise function.

If you think about a conference, for example. I was just at a conference with a couple hundred people, and the vibe was electric, and the ideal kind of context for collaboration, I think because there was a hosting team of five people, who know each other really well. They trust each other, they’ve got a great relationship. And as they’re welcoming people into the conference, they’re modeling to everyone, “Hey, you can be comfortable here. You can be safe here. We’re going to have a good time. Your needs are going to be met. This is going to be a good time.” So the leadership being played by that five person scale, is then broadcasting out into the whole room.

In my experience – and I don’t know about yours – but in my experience, all of the most potent learning moments, they happened with like two, three, four, or five people. Often it’s two, often it’s one-on-one. A conversation where someone has really seen me, and given just the right feedback that I needed at that moment. Sometimes it’s in five, like in these break at groups, or at a dinner table conversation. And at a larger scale, sure, you can you can listen to an inspiring speech. You know, a thousand people can listen to the same inspiring speech, and they get some ideas. But those those kind of experiences, they usually don’t really shift something deep in your core. It’s always the small scale where stuff really moves you.

So this is the first piece, is just thinking about how big groups are made of small groups. And then if we want any kind of objectives you have for a large group, I think you are going to be more likely to succeed if you can first prove that it works on a small scale.

The other half is about tempo. I don’t know how many musicians we have on the call. I don’t know if this looks like a foreign language, but basically what I’m trying to show here is that we can have different tempos: some things that move really slow, like that first beat, and some that go really, really quickly. And this is how I project this lens onto organizations and onto community design, as my primary way of thinking about an organization – not through the organigram chart, who’s meeting who, but what time are these meetings happening?

So there’s tempos in many different categories. Oh yeah, I wanted to say that collective identity grows from rhythmic encounter. This is a weird thing to say, but it’s true. If you play football sometimes, or if you play football every Monday, it’s going to make a big difference to how you identify. So you identify as a footballer if you play football every Monday. If it becomes a rhythmic, dependable, reliable part of your life, then it starts to shape your identity and who you are. So it’s so essential for me, in any community building work, to provide people with opportunities for rhythmic encounter. Because I think this is just a mammal thing, I think we just sync up with each other. When we look at the calendar and we say, “Ah, yes, it’s Friday: I do my Friday thing with my Friday people,” and that shapes who we are.

Some of the organizational rhythms that I wanted to mention, what I call the relational rhythms. In a lot of the communities and organizations we work in we have these things we call peer support pods. So, a group of four or five people, they meet once a week, they’re supporting each other, they’re connecting with each other. So it’s very rapid, you know, once a week is quite a rapid tempo. And then we have the annual retreat, like I mentioned, from Enspiral. So this much larger group that only meets once a year, and it’s longer, and slower, and deeper. And these kind of rhythms support each other.

We also have what I call a planning rhythm. So this is more like strategy and objectives. So this is like looking at a really, really long-term, three year strategy, or a mid-term, three-month thing.

We have the working rhythms. Again, these are quite quick. I do a lot of work with Agile teams, so that’s all about dividing the tasks down into the smallest increment, and shipping work, and then having these rapid feedback loops.

And then the learning rhythms – which to me, probably the relational and the learning are the two essential ones. The other ones I can give or take them, but the learning one is essential, this practice of habitually stopping to review. “How we going? What’s our practice? What are we celebrating, and what are we going to change for the next time?”

So this is, like I said, just the two theoretical lenses that I want to throw into the room, and I want to ask how they fit into your context: the scale and the tempo. And maybe a quick last little – what I think of as the take-away peice. If I was already – I don’t know you well enough to make recommendations and give advice – but if I was gonna jump to my multivitamin advice for anyone building community, it basically looks like this.

Number one: meet in a small group, give each other peer support. And peer support can look like anything. Again, in some groups, there’s a high degree of trust and shared concepts, so you don’t need any formal practice. You just meet and you talk about what’s going on, and that’s enough. Other groups, they need a little bit more structure. So I love some of the liberating structures, or stuff from Theory U, like the case clinic process. On the micro solidarity website you’ll find like a million different processes you can use in groups for facilitating this kind of peer support.

So, we meet in a small group, we do it for a time-limited commitment. So we say, “Let’s meet weekly for six weeks.” Not indefinitely, but here’s the thing that I can commit to and it’s time-limited. The point of this is to avoid the problem of groups fading out, and kind of losing energy. It’s really awkward if you start a thing and then it starts fading out. So making it a time-limited commitment gives people a face-saving way of saying, “Thank you so much, I’ve had enough,” you know? Or, maybe we want to keep going. So this is the thing: we review, we iterate with retrospectives. So at the end of that time-limited commitment, we stop and we say, “Do we want to keep going? Yes or no? Do we want to change things? Maybe we can rotate who’s facilitating now and distribute the leadership.” And once you’ve got one of these little groups working really well, then recruit three more, you know, and get the same thing going, and then three more, and get them to cross-pollinate out three more. So that’s the that’s the general frame that I wanted to do on the download.

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