Sustainable communities are dynamic communities III

By embracing change and focusing on keeping our communities dynamic, sustainability often falls into place. I have developed 15 keys to creating dynamic, healthy, learning communities. My last post focused on communication keys, and the previous post on more general keys. Here are the final keys 11-15, which focus on structure:


11. Know that structure can lead to dynamism
Having spent much of the past twenty years working with non-profit organizations, I have heard a great deal about the desire to resist the creation of intentional social structures or to document one’s intentions. Often, ironically, these desires are expressed during meetings. People may see structure and documentation as a means to oppress the knowledge and skills of the many talented people who make up the learning community. However, I see structures as quite the opposite – they often act as facilitators of freedom and allow more individuals to contribute to their community. This is for two reasons, as made explicit by Jo Freeman:

  • No group is truly without structure. Without any formal structure, informal structures remain in place. These informal structures often favour the hoarding of information, poor communication practice, and unequal power relations. I am not advocating for overly structured communities. Instead, I suggest that we should be conscious of the underlying structures that exist in any organisation and put measures into place to help address any inadequacies. For a practical starting point, check out Chapter 4 of Building Powerful Community Organizations.
  • Groups without a clear structure often rely on informal personal networks. These networks are often segregated by race/class/ethnicity/gender /etc. Joan Meyers, of the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, provides some interesting commentary on this point based on her extensive research with One World Natural Grocery, which successfully implemented a system that helped to facilitate participatory democracy in a workplace community.

12. Allow many to lead and step away from FOMO
Ensuring that those who wish to lead have an opportunity to do so helps build dynamic and robust communities, provided that it is coupled with healthy communication practices and a clear sense of roles. This means being open to the ideas of others, being willing to take responsibility oneself, and also being willing to follow and support others. Equally, it means that not everyone needs to be involved in everything. Many ambitious people experience FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) at some point in time. Multiple, fast communication methods at our fingertips has heightened FOMO for many individuals.

13. Create time and space for reflection
The best ideas are often generated when one steps out of his or her usual pattern. Stefan Seigmeister speaks effectively to this idea in his Ted Talk, The Power of Time Off . While we do not all have the luxury of taking a year to ourselves, we can find small cracks in our days that allow us to physically and mentally step away and think. This might be in the form of physical exercise, pursuing a hobby, taking a bath or finding a quiet place to sit. Communities can facilitate reflection by actively creating or preserving green spaces. The Great Neighborhood Book provides inspiration in this regard.

14. Plan for succession
Many people have discussed succession planning in terms of formal workplace models. Succession planning allows us to help celebrate and build upon our successes. It helps to ensure that the wonderful contributions of past leaders are not lost, while also developing new leaders in our communities. In these ways, succession planning is vital to the sustainability of healthy communities. However, it is important to keep in mind that succession planning should be something that allows us to celebrate and build, not just hold onto the past. The aim is not to continue doing things the way someone else has done them, or to maintain past structures, programs, places or projects in the same manner as they have always existed. If we keep the big goals in mind and understand the importance of change, succession planning becomes a key part of creating dynamic communities.

While many of us have experienced succession planning in terms of formal roles in workplaces, it is equally relevant to our communities to think about informal roles – keep in mind, all communities have structure, including roles. Who helps take care of elderly living alone in your neighbourhood? Who makes sure coffee is made in the morning or dishes cleaned up after a lunch meeting in the office? Who take leadership in ensuring that shared green spaces are kept clean? What will happen when local business owners or farmers retire? Who else could learn into these roles?

15. Balance the ups and downs (institutional settings)
For organizations working with a board, or at least in a hierarchical structure, it seems like half the people I speak to congratulate colleagues on their ability to ‘manage up’, while the other half warn of the dangers of such an approach. The key is in balance and communication.

Everyone in a learning community has something to contribute. Keep this as the focus while also maintaining some sense of organizational structure. Otherwise nothing will get done! A good board of directors will value the insights of those they have hired. At the same time, boards are there to offer a different set of valuable perspectives and experiences.

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