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Communities depend on more than connection. They are fostered by relationships and shared purpose. Change the relationships or purpose and you create a new community. Communities take ages to build but disappear quickly when you break these rules.
The visibility and connection that comes with global networks has driven new attention to the idea of community. Community is a business buzzword and organizations are increasingly seeking to leverage the value of the communities in and around their business.
We can inadvertently carry over our thinking from traditional marketing across to consider these new corporate relationships. We start to treat every segment of our customers, employees or stakeholders as a community. We believe we own these communities because they connect to us. We try to determine our and others’ interactions with these communities. That’s the way our traditional one-way marketing relationships have been managed. We can’t say it has been effective even in marketing. It doesn’t work in community.
Customers aren’t a community. Employees aren’t a community. In most cases these groups of people have no shared relationships and have not considered any shared purposes. They may be interested in interactions with your organisation but it is not yet clear that it qualifies as a relationship with you, let alone similar others.
People can’t be put into communities. They join them. Nobody owns a community, not even the platform owner. Groups of people aren’t a community until they move from connections to building two-way relationships and find a shared purpose. Community involves both what we get from the interaction and what the community as a whole benefits from the interaction. The intentions of a common corporate master matter little unless executed in alignment with these outcomes. This applies even where you have the ability to control and reward employees for participation in your community. One of the reason truly valuable enterprise social communities have been challenging for organizations is that they have failed to understand this dynamic. The organizational masters expect, rather than engage.
The sense of control that comes from traditional marketing’s one-way communication is out of place in this new two-way context. Communities are engaged in, not informed of change. When you decide that you want different membership, different interactions or a new purpose for a community, you are deciding you need a brand new community. Assume you are starting from scratch. There is no migration. You are recruiting for a new community. Don’t be surprised to discover that your wishes are resisted or the community simply moves elsewhere and leaves you out. After all your relationship is only one connection in that community.
Real communities change from within driven by the needs of the members. You can’t expect your current community to follow your wishes. You are asking them to start again and you have unilaterally imposed a change on their relationships and sense of personal purpose. If you want change in a community, you need to engage in dialogue around the purposes and relationships in the community.
Too many communities are simply networks of interactions that create no value for anyone. Treasure the relationships and shared purpose created in community. Respect the magic of these relationships and you will find the value of community.
Two powerful words of change are ‘as if’. In Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, she talks about the power in change movements of the ‘politics of prefiguration’, acting as if a desired change has happened. I’ve seen the power of ‘as if’ as a lever for change in many contexts.
With ‘what if’ we can conceive a future different to today. With ‘as if’ we can start to bring that future into existence. We can act now ‘as if’ our desired future is here.
As a young manager, I wanted some day to be CEO. To help me realize that ‘what if’, I started acting ‘as if’ I had a greater position in the organization. Acting as if challenged me to learn how to more senior executives acted. It taught me to seek out and practice skills that I would need in later roles. Importantly, people reacted to my acting as if by respecting my leadership, giving me greater responsibilities and helping me see what more I needed to learn (often pointedly). Acting as if I was CEO ultimately brought about the chance to become one.
I advocate working out loud as a practice because we can’t think our way to a new way of acting. We are better to act as if our changes are here. The process of working out loud shows people they have the skills they need and that many of their fears are overrated. Acting as if everyone is working out loud surfaces the issues with working out loud that need to be solved.
In Change Agents Worldwide we work as a network organization. We work as if one of the dominant future models of work is here now. It isn’t always easy and we make mistakes. However by working through the real issues of action together we are solving problems that others will need to solve later. Acting as if is far more valuable than debating the many scenarios that the future will hold.
Many desired changes are changes of mindset. Often all that is needed to bring these about is to act as if they have occurred. Being more confident is hard on its own. Acting as if you are more confident is way to learn, experience the change and reinforce the new mindset. You also discover that those who act with confidence are treated by others as confident people. Being a leader who can influence others is not a role. It is a mindset that meets influence in your relationships with others. Acting as if you are a leader will win you more influence or help you understand what you need to win more.
Acting as if turns speculation into an experiment. Acting as if will surprise you with your readiness for change and the acceptance your changes will meet. Acting as if helps you learn what is required for successful change. Acting as if surfaces the problems and stakeholder conflicts that you will only find by doing the work of change. Any change is more robust when it has been through the process of being put into action now.
What change do you want? How would you act if it had happened today?
Imagine you go to a corporate town hall meeting in your organisation. Your CEO walks onto the stage and announces ‘I’d like my head of employee communications to speak to you on my behalf about the future of the organisation’. The head of employee communications then delivers the CEO’s talk standing behind a cardboard cutout of the CEO while the CEO watches from off stage.
No matter how well the head of employee communications speaks that talk won’t have the same leadership impact. The audience can see the artifice and will discount the words. A room that has gathered to experience leadership has been disappointed.
A ludicrous example? Yes. Would it ever happen? Let’s hope not. However I have seen CEOs stand on stage while videos play their corporate message with such polish that the lack of reality undercuts the authenticity and influence of the speech that follows.
However in too many organisations today the senior leadership’s messages on intranets and enterprise social networks are outsourced to others. Their profiles on the intranet or social network are cardboard cutouts with perfectly eloquent prose and carefully considered responses. Few people give these perfect words the attention for which they were crafted so professionally. People know these profiles avoid conflict by suppressing, not by addressing or engaging in it.
Leadership is about influencing others to action. Influence doesn’t come from perfect prose. Influence is an outcome of relationships built in aligned purpose, shared understanding, authenticity, capability and trust. Influence comes from relationships founded on shared experiences, finding solutions to mess and building understanding of real problems. Working through conflict is part of the process of leadership.
Leaders often express surprise at the influence community managers and champions have in social networks. They can see these individuals winning the respect of their peers because they are prepared to stay in the conversation, share and work relationships forward. These individual engage in the daily conversations and conflicts in the organisation and it builds their influence.
Don’t outsource your leadership conversations to others. Leaders need to engage in their own relationships with the strategic advice and support of communication and community management professionals. Embrace the mess & conflict of real relationships and expand your leadership influence.
A PostScript On Time
If you’ve read this far and still think ‘leaders don’t have the time for this’, then remember finding time is a question of allocating priority. What is the role of leaders if not to influence teams to better action? Greater leadership effectiveness is always worth the time.
Despair demands less of us, it’s more predictable, and in a sad way safer. Authentic hope requires clarity-seeing the troubles in this world- and imagination, seeing what might lie beyond these situations that are perhaps not inevitable and immutable – Rebecca Solnit
Despair is easy because it comes to find us. We must search out and make paths to hope.
Turn on the television, read the media or engage in social conversations and you will encounter the warm embrace of despair. Change is hard. It is easy to present the barriers to change as dangerous, arduous and insurmountable. Faced with the need to invest effort in understanding complexity, many give up before they even see or consider the paths forward.
The problems that are easy to be solved will be fixed with technical expertise. Despair abounds at the systemic complexity of the issues that remain. No hero or heroine can single-handedly fix these issues. Systemic challenges demand a systemic response from a large measure of the community. The hard work of hope is the work of informing, engaging, enabling and leading networks in change.
As long as the future is not fixed there is hope. New connections, lead to shared information and new solutions. Small acts of change accumulate in systems. The path to hope is to bring communities together in change and to help them better understand the reality of their system. Today, as ever, that is the work that matters. This is the work that tests our purposes and talents. Despair is easy. There are many to instruct us in despair. The ‘hopey-changey’ thing is rightfully hard.
Hope is not a door, but a sense that there might be a door at some point, some way out of the problems of the present moment even before that way is found or followed – Rebecca Solnit