Last night Josien Kapma and John Smith phoned in for a conversation, as part of their effort to catalogue and understand the ways communities raise and use financial resources; I’ll be looking forward to the results. We talked mainly about Macuarium.com, which has a peculiar business model, and we meandered a bit along the way.
One of the issues raised was «how do you cope with the changes» in the community membership, in the stakeholders, in the ecosystem, in the competition, in the companies that affect the domain…? Changes that affect the way people relate and communicate, their practices, their requirements and availability, and their business objectives. How can you build a financially sound community on shifting ground?
Well, you can’t. What you build is a community designed to change, to balance those shifts, to adapt… and to rebuild. Like any other business. There’s a long piece in Spanish (which I hope to publish some day, but not yet) about business practices. It’s called «The Sand Castle«, and the conversation brought it to mind.
You may be familiar with sea-shore sand castles. Some are wonders of ingenuity and architecture. But there’s one thing they all have in common: if you leave them alone when the tide rises, they eventually disappear.
But the key here is «eventually». Any fixed structure that doesn’t react to the continuous variations of the environment will get washed away. Management isn’t a race, it’s ongoing. You never finish.
Some people come back in the morning and rebuild, and a bit of observation leads to finding out which features survive better and worse, which can be lost without harm to the core characteristics (or with little rebuilding cost) and where your effort will be wasted.
After a while (and with the permission of beach bulldozers) you notice that some sand lumps are still there in the morning for a long time. During the day, they sprout ingenuous defences (wave breakers, chanelled moats, higher and thicker walls), often quite away from their core. This enables them to survive the first tide in recognisable shape, even though each wave changes the shape of the defences, and the tide eventually overcomes them.
Last summer I saw a specially good example, a large prow-shaped keep surrounded by terraced solid walls, and shallow channel moats. It survived for over a week, carefully tended by some holidaying family (it was a strange sight late in the evenings, the keep looking solid like a grounded ship among the fishermen). When they left, it crumbled fast (with help from footloose children).
Communities and companies are like that. They need continuous tending and rebuilding, reshaping and learning and repairing. Some people seem to think that setting up a community of practice is a one-off task you can complete and leave to run on its own. It isn’t. You either keep rebuilding or the changes in the environment, the needs and behaviours of members, or stray events, will dissolve it.
The financial side is clear. You need some core funding source, and you need to tie it down and surround it with as many defences as you can build. You then go on to complement it with less secure, more variable sources that enable you to build better things, but which you can let go without disappearing (and yes, that means choosing a business model and a marketing strategy and sticking to it to build defensive barriers; it also means experimenting).
Your core may get very big eventually, but it’s always subject to the effects of a radical change so you better stand ready to correct, evolve, rebuild. Those outlying defences may prove to be useful and become a fixture, even if you need to invest periodical efforts in it (changes in partnerships according to circumstances: you can always have one, if you’re always ready to seek a new one when the current agreement runs its course).
Above all, the sand crumbles. The team changes. The reliable stalwart of the forums decides to go blogging on their own. The moderator grows tired, jaded or demotivated. The dominant portal sprouts a service that mimics yours. The municipality cuts funding for training initiatives. Evolution in the only constant in a community that aims to persist.
And evolution means adaptation. When you’re made of sand, you can’t just wait out the waves: you can’t win.
So you change the terrain and you adapt: you don’t build vertical wall, but slanted ones that allow the wave to spend its force with minimum damage (or you find a way to collaborate with the domain’s established forces, such as industrial organizations and training outfits). You find ways to minimize the strength of the surf with diverting moats (or strike publishing agreements that draw the competitive sting from other resources such as blogs). You raise the floor within the walls so as to turn it into a cliff instead of a hollow (or increase the cohesiveness of the team with a coherent communication and confraternization policy). You observe. You look around for better ideas, and you experiment.
And when the water breaks in, you rebuild. And it will get in. Because you’re made of sand.
Just, maybe, not this tide.
Gracias for this wonderful metaphor for change — this is an image that will stay with me and that I’ll likely use in my own conversations, with credit to you.
Ray (from Boston USA)
Hi Miguel, nice post! I’m not sure the metaphore works fully for the situation I had in mind of leadership change, maybe it relates most to the holidaying family. So when the holidaying family goes, what happens? I think in real life there are many more scenarios because a CoP is a living thing, and the sand castle isn’t. (sorry for crumbling your metaphore there :).
If I have time I will crossblog it today!
Hi Ray, Joitske, thanks :-).
Joitske, I guess the model holds… if you consider that the family is not just one person, but the active core of the CoP. The «management» (in a wide sense), those that take the time to move and do and shake and write and build an environment in which other members can talk and share and learn. That environment is very frail; if it does not get tended to, it crumbles. Forums get run over with spam and flames, shared activities falter, the group splinters, the funding streams go untended and dry up.
In your specific situation (whole leadership change), it would be like a new family taking over the upkeep of the sand castle (kinda, the friends of the family’s kids having been involved in the castle-building, and taking over when the original family leaves).
How’s that for stretching the metaphor :-) ?