This post is a summary of Tom Hollingsworth‘s presentation on Building a Community from WLPC Phoenix 2020.
A community is a lot like a Lego set. It comprises different standardized pieces that all fit together, helping you build things and preventing you from doing something you’re not supposed to, like pulling your fingers together.
How do we build a community?
There are specific instructions for each Lego model. But when you flip the manual over, you’ll see four or five more designs that you can build out of the pieces, and there are no instructions for this because you don’t need one! You just have to feel your way through the parts, and the same is true in building a community.
Community building is a year-round thing. It takes time and effort; Invest blood, sweat, toil in tears, master the virtue of patience. It’s not enough to show up, be present, be there to make a community happen. It also means being available at all times, you won’t have time for anything else.
Building a community is a lot of work, but it’s rewarding work because you gain vision. Vision isn’t something you always know about. Be willing to take a chance on that. Listen, listen three times more than you talk, and ask questions that can’t be answered with a “yes” or “no.” Tell me your story, tell me about who you are, tell me why you came into my life because that’s how you build a community: you get people talking and learn from them, not the other way around.
How do you grow a community?
Building a community is already a tremendous feat, and growing one is another. There are no shortcuts for this one.
A great way to grow your community is through introductions. Introduce strangers to each other because you won’t continue to grow in the same environment you’ve already thrived in. Drag people over, make introductions, but don’t control the conversation. Let them figure out what they have in common and establish connections. When you build relationships with people, you don’t know where these would take off, probably in ways you couldn’t even possibly expect.
You also have to be an example in your community and this one’s tricky. Who you are is reflected in the community you’re building. If you, the community leader, don’t set an example, somebody else will, and this can cause massive problems or violations of codes of conduct, derail the system. If you don’t feel comfortable in your community, you can never feel safe, you can never feel like you can open up and talk to people, you lose trust, and you can never grow.
When you lose trust, judgment kicks in, and judgment is the wrong shortcut for learning because it becomes an alternative to a proper discussion. To grow a community, embrace new ideas. Be willing to talk to people who disagree with you and settle on a decision to bring value to the community. You can’t do any of these when you’ve already judged others.
A community’s growth is very similar to a goldfish and a houseplant, they only grow as big as the space you put them in. If you give your community things to work with and they never get bigger than that, give people space to grow. And sometimes, you’ll have to move things. Some ideas need their own space, requiring people willing to stand on top of the ladder, so be ready to do that.
When people ask about this, another question comes up often: “What tools can I use to grow the community?” and the answer is, you can’t. Don’t rely on tools to help you build your community because if everybody stops using that tool, you don’t have a community. To grow a community, get the message out there.
How do we help a community mature?
Of all three stages of a community, maturity is the most difficult because it involves a lot of trust.
Be an excellent steward, realize when you have to help and when you have to step away and learn to follow. It’s just as crucial for you to take part as it is for you to lead. You’re as much a part of this community and a leader as anybody else. Recognize greatness in people, and you’ll have to trust them to step forward and take on new roles. This is difficult, especially if you’ve been leading the community since day one, but it is what it takes to make sure you won’t have a last.
One day soon, you will build a community, lead one, and be part of one together with vibrant, unique, and intellectual people. Like a Lego set, you may have to focus on smaller pictures before realizing the bigger one, and it will undoubtedly take a lot of time and work to find the pieces that fit together. But when you do, you’ll end up with a beautiful scene that is both rewarding and valuable.