The la-la land in small scale collaborative communities

Since 2011 I have been working almost full time on collaborative projects, with open and decentralized organizations. I can say that I've seen it all, but I am still trying to make sense of it all.

I recently realized something that plagues a lot of small scale collaborative organizations. As strange as it might seam, it's the good feeling that most of them nurture. To put it bluntly, often these type of organizations put the good feeling that members experience together, before work. Members of these organizations will often act to save the pleasure, the friendship, while they sacrifice work.

We all want to feel good in our work environment. But we need to realize that the primary reason people get together in open and collaborative projects is to achieve something, not to have fun. There are plenty of other opportunities to have fun. Fun can be a byproduct of working together, when everything goes well. But work is not always fun, it comes with responsibilities, sometimes we must do things that we don't like, sometimes it generates stress, sometimes we need to confront difficult situations and difficult people.

The problem is that most informal, small scale collaborative communities lose their ability to deal with negativity, which cannot always be avoided. When a negative situation arises, very often people go into hiding, try to cover it up, put on the proverbial fake smile, simply ignore the situation, or take the wrong approach in dealing with it, avoiding at all costs making things personal, even when the source/cause is a particular individual. Some people, we know them as the straight shooters, the community guardians or the barking dogs, identify the issue, call it like it is, point the finger. Very often, those who don't shy away from defending the community from wrong-doing find themselves attacked by other members for disrupting the good feeling. They become the problem, they feel victimized for having acted for the benefit of the community, they get frustrated, and some even quit. Such communities filter out these important individuals who fill the role of keeping things real, and attract people that avoid negativity. Some communities that I experienced feel fake, they are a place where everything is rose and must be kept rose. When the straight shooters and the barking dogs are neutralized, the community becomes a lame duck, widely exposed to abuse. What might happen, is that wolfs identify the widely exposed flock of sheep and infiltrate it. When they attack, the superficial sense of good feeling gets replaced with an overwhelming sense of insecurity, and the community disperses.

We also need to mention the tremendous amount of effort these communities spend to harmonize relations, which is not put into productive work. They are pretty heavy into forging a group identity and a sense of belonging. They spend a lot of time on training their members on non-violent communication. They heavily rely on face-to-face meetings to strengthen interpersonal bonds, which are costly (in terms of time and traveling), sometimes highly inefficient and excluding those who cannot be there but can still contribute.

Another important side-effect of too much bonding is the creation of collusion clusters, people that start protecting each others, covering each others up for their wrong doing to protect their friendship, even if that goes against the common goal. A strongly bounded community also develops a tribal mentality, which makes it less open to newcomers, who need to divert a large portion of their efforts towards gaining acceptance instead of doing productive work. There is an optimum of bonding in a collaborative community, beyond which things turn bad.

But it's not just people to blame here... We need to understand the socioeconomic dynamic. These types of organisations that form around a cause and don't generate (enough) tangible benefits for their members are held together mostly by good feeling, shared values and culture. People instinctively or consciously realize that in order to keep everyone engaged they need to keep everyone happy, they need to nurture a positive atmosphere. The game becomes: commit to some effort and you'll be rewarded in good feelings. Peer pressure gets biased towards maintaining the good feeling.

So how can we escape the spiraling down towards the la-la land?

In my opinion, we need to realize that the game played within small scale collaborative communities is only first order, mostly driven by irrationality. People are almost unconsciously driven towards this good feeling and want to preserve it. They end up reversing priorities, putting the good feeling before the work. They almost forget why they are there, which is to achieve something together in the first place, rather than just having fun. Shying away from negativity is also a natural, mostly irrational reaction. Dealing with negativity requires energy and guts, which come with commitment, with the realization that we are there to achieve something, and that something needs to be protected.

Small collaborative communities need to add a rational layer on top of the irrational first order, which amounts to a work ethic. Members need to be reminded that they are together first and foremost to achieve something, that work might be difficult, stressful, that they might have to deal with insecurity, to put up with problematic individuals, etc. The community needs to nurture a sense of responsibility and commitment to the cause, not just to naively promise fun and good feelings until the end of the project.

Inject more rationality and objectivity into your community and you'll avoid becoming a la-la land. Realize that your straight shooters and barking dogs are important assets. Nurture a work ethic of responsibility and commitment. All this should be enough to change the collaboration game to: commit to some effort and we'll achieve our collective goal, and perhaps have some fun on the way. Changing the game will affect the composition of your community. You'll most probably lose some people, those who have a really low tolerance to negativity, but you'll retain other people, those who are more goal oriented.

Building a more goal oriented community is an important step, if you aim at creating a more stable and capable organisation, that can generate tangible benefits for its members. As members start to benefit in a tangible way from their collaboration (generate earnings for example), they will stop putting the good feeling before the work, the collaboration game will shift again.

For more insights, also read my post Developmental stages and problems for open communities and networks.

By Tiberius Brastaviceanu


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Thank you so much for reading this message!

You've certainly pointed out some really important issues here, and thanks for flagging this post on the P2P Loomio thread. In the spirit of straight shooting, I'd like to question your initial assumption, that

the primary reason people get together in open and collaborative projects is to achieve something, not to have fun

Maybe the dialogue could go forward through looking carefully at the term "reason". Many people take "reason" in this context to mean something more like "motivation", in which case the claim would look false — while some people are motivated by outcomes, others are motivated primarily by well-being, or more simply "feeling good".

I think there's another sense of the term "reason" which may give different results. If you mean something to do with "necessary rationale" (I'm struggling for terms that communicate well here) one could make out the case that projects have to support themselves (including financially) in order to continue to provide the well-being that people want. I've also seen, in several places, some version of this threefold purpose to a good organisation:

  1. make a difference
  2. have fun
  3. make enough money to support aims 1 and 2

which makes more complete sense to me.

Related to what you write here, I would say that organisations need a balance of thinkers and feelers, of production and well-being, and perhaps several other common polarities. Organisations, like people, need something like wholeness to be healthy and long-lived. Sure, put in a corrective, as you are doing, when one side is over-emphasised; but please try to point out at the same time that both sides are vital. There is no wholeness without both sides being present.

So, to me, the key challenge in this situation is: how do we collectively manage a positive relationship between the two "sides"? Where the two sides value and appreciate each other, all will be well. When they fight for dominance, all may be lost.

I would love to engage with a proper forum (more than a comment thread) to pursue this dialogue. "Distributed Network Protocols" is not the right place, even though that is where I picked this up from. I also very much appreciate personal one-to-one dialogue.

"asimong" Simon Grant