Friday, July 1, 2011

Workshops coming soon...

I've created two workshops that I mentioned earlier - to develop the group's purpose and to come up with spokes.  I'll post them both soon when I find a good way to attach pdfs here.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Plan, Act, and Reflect: Group and Personal Praxis

In previous posts, I've described a chart for evaluating an organization, a spiral and spokes model for balanced growth, and outlined some ideas about maintaining continuity between short-term and long-term planning.  Now, I'm going to try to bring it all together, and sketch out a model for a growing organization that plans, acts, and reflects.

Looking at the movement over the past few years, people are doing more, they're thinking through things beforehand more, and they're studying and thinking about what needs to be done. This is great. We have a long way to go, though, because it's generally not balanced. We have groups that are big on acting but don't seem to have a plan or think about the effects of their action afterwards. We have study groups that delve deep into theory but don't get involved much in action and have trouble with concrete plans. 

Some groups are pretty good about this and relatively balanced--planning, acting, and then reflecting on their actions for next time. But often the planning and reflecting as a group tends to be focused only on an immediate goal. This is the flip-side of groups that focus solely on far off goals and neglect the concrete.

And just as different groups seem to find an unbalanced niche, individuals do the same and gravitate towards groups that match their personal preferences. So you find people that care a lot about theory but don't know how to apply it gravitating towards study groups. People that care about winning immediate gains gravitate towards groups devoid of theory and without a long-term plan. People that are attracted to militant action gravitate towards action-only groups.

To be effective, though, we need an organization that cares about theory and far off goals, that plans before it acts, that reflects on actions in order to be more effective next time, that works on long and medium term goals as well as short. And the organization needs to have a place for people at different levels of development in different areas. Someone who truly is only interested in thoughtless "militant action" or who just wants to study theory and never apply it has no place in an effective organization, of course, but part of the role of the organization is to take people with different levels of experience, knowledge, ability, and risk acceptance, and both allow them to plug into productive work and to develop their abilities in other areas to make them more well rounded.

At least, that's the thrust of what I'm investigating - how to build an effective, growing organization that plans before it acts and reflects afterwards, that achieves short-term goals, but as a means to achieving medium and long-term goals, according to medium and long term plans. And to be growing, it needs to be able to take people in largely as they are, find ways to let them apply their skills and do what they seek to do, and also help them to grow in their abilities and vision.

Of course, at the state of the movement now, few if any people are really actually good at much of what we need to do or know where to begin. That's ok. In fact, it's best if we are honest with ourselves about our current limitations if we hope to move beyond them.

So what does that mean for planning? Well, people and groups that do no planning choose that route because they know their limitations and know that any plan they come up with would take a long time and wouldn't be very good. It's rational then to avoid that detour and get right to what they want to do. Likewise, people and groups that plan only in the short-term are rightly skeptical of long-term planning.

It would be a mistake to jump right in and start crafting intricate long-term strategies that go beyond what we know. If we did that, we'd go down one of two possible routes - stick with the plan and fail miserably, or end up ignoring it and not really using a long term plan.

But there's another way to go that avoids those traps and follows two important principles. One principle is to stick with what you know and what speaks to the experience of the people in your group. The other principle is that you can't grow if you don't stretch. These principles are opposed, but they still work together. If you stay with only what you know, you'll get better and better at it, but you won't really go anywhere. If you stretch too far, you'll become ungrounded and disconnected from the present. Instead, you play to your strengths, but challenge yourselves.

In the context of planning, this means that you don't concern yourself too much with long-term planning, since it's probably far outside your experience and abilities. But nobody is completely without ability in this regard. So you challenge yourselves to come up with a long term plan that is as concrete and realistic as you can manage, but no more detailed and intricate than your hazy view of the future warrants. So you spend a bit of time, not much, on this. Come up with something you can work towards and revisit as you learn more.

In addition to this, you can work on a medium term plan - this is closer to your experience, and it's easier to guess about the future. You'd spend more time on this, and the result would be more detailed, more concrete, and more accurate. But still, it would be pretty limited, because it is a stretch.

Next is the near term plan. This you can really sink your teeth into. What are you going to do over the next 6 months or year? You can set specific goals, with measurable targets, and put these on the calendar. You'll have some sense of how these goals feed into your medium term goals.

Once you have the plan, you can track how well you are doing. But you can do more than that with the plan. The plan is a recruiting tool - it shows prospective members not just what you are doing right now, but what you plan to be doing and what they can help to build - all in a concrete way. And you can use the plan in conjunction with the spiral and spokes and the evaluation chart I mentioned earlier to evaluate where your organization is currently at. If the targets are all being met, the spokes are all balanced and growing, and your status table is also balanced, then all is great and just keep on doing what you're doing.

But let's be honest - it won't work out like that. Targets will be missed, your spokes will be unbalanced, and there will be gaps in your chart. These tools, together with your collection of plans, will help identify problems. Maybe you were just too optimistic with your plan and need to scale back. Maybe something unexpected came up that your plan didn't address. Maybe your initial priorities were off track. 

Whatever the problem, periodic evaluation allows you to adjust the plans, or, if you are still confident in the plan but not its execution, it allows you to refocus energy where it is needed to satisfy the group's goals.  The key is first you plan, then you act, then you evaluate and adjust your plans.

And there's another use for the plans - making new plans! The first time you layout plans for your organization, it's a lot of work, because you're starting from scratch. But after that, subsequent planning sessions can take longer-term plans as a broad-strokes model to base shorter-term plans on. And even though you'll revisit the long term plan with new information and abilities, you just need to change it enough to reflect what's come up.

Something else that group plans and evaluations will do for a growing group is identify skills and resources that will be needed in the future. These won't appear out of thin air. You'll either need to attract people that have these skills or you'll need to train members and get them up to speed in time. This points to individual planning and evaluation.

With periodic individual evaluations and planning, individual members can identify their own strengths and areas that they would like to work on. As group needs are identified, individual members need to be encouraged to step up and grow as an individual. This can be done with self-directed study, mentorship, training workshops, and also intentional and reflective learn-by-doing.

In this way, intentional periodic group and individual evaluation and planning can tell us what to do next, how to do it, and who should do it. When an action is coming up, rather than always having the most talented organizer take charge, members that most need experience and training can take the lead backed up by more experienced organizers.

And since the group collectively evaluates itself and collectively developed it's plan and individuals evaluate themselves and come up with their own plans, this process will emerge naturally.

Members will see the concrete need for leaders in the organization, and they will see what is needed to develop leadership in themselves.  In addition the group will encourage people to grow and help find ways for people to direct their energy in ways that make them effective personally as well as making the group effective.

So how do we put all this together? First, we need to be careful to prefer a broad-strokes approach rather than an involved step-by-step one. We could come up with a 10 step plan, and then begin by breaking the first step down into 10 steps, and quickly lose sight of what we need to do, never getting to step 2. Instead, we might have a 10 step plan, or maybe even better, a 5 step plan. And we figure out for each of those 5 steps what is the minimal amount of energy we can apply to each in order to make a quick pass through them all. Then, after we've done that, we'll have made progress, and we'll have learned some things. That's the time to revisit and try to flesh things out a bit in another pass.

So what about some steps for a small group just starting out?

1 - Decide on basic principles - if you are a local group in a larger organization, this is largely done. Otherwise, you can look at statements of principles from other organizations and just borrow it. If there are glaring omissions, you can add some for your local group, but keep it simple and don't get bogged down in it.

2 - Develop a purpose - I really liked the discussion on this in chapters 4 and 5 of The Purpose Driven Church. No, I don't want to start a church, but that doesn't change the fact that these two chapters have some very valuable general ideas for creating the foundation of a growing organization with an uncompromising purpose. I've created a workshop loosely based on these chapters, and I'll talk more about that soon.

3 - Develop spiral and spokes - from the key purposes, identify key spokes needed to realize those purposes in a growing organization at future levels of size and activity.

4 - Evaluate where you're at - look at the spiral/spokes and also the evaluation chart I talked about and figure out where you are at as an organization, what your strengths are and also areas for growth.

5 - Develop a plan - from the evaluation of where you're at, come up with plans for far off goals, long term goals, medium term goals, and near term goals. Focus most effort on more immediate plans, leaving farther off goals more broad strokes.

6 - Implement the plan - take the near term plan and figure out what concrete steps need to be taken right now to meet your goals, and do it.

7 - Evaluate the group and yourselves as individuals - this would be ongoing, including post-action reflection as well as periodically evaluating progress towards group and individual goals.  This leads back to step 4.

Next up - Developing a Purpose: a workshop for small groups

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Evaluating An Organization

While writing some notes for my next planned post (Plan, Act, and Reflect: Group and Personal Praxis), I came up with a chart and thought I'd share it:

Let's say you are a member of an organization and you are talking with someone who is a bit interested but isn't sure if they want to get involved.  They probably aren't going to be very methodical and use charts and checklists, but they are evaluating your organization.  If they say "no" they might not even be able to tell you why they aren't interested, but as I see it, they are sizing you up in a few categories all at once seeing where your organization stands.

Everyone is different, with different thresholds, needs, and interests, but there are some basic questions you'll hear:

"What do you do?"
"What have you done?
"What do you hope to achieve?"
"Why do you think that will work?"
"Where did you get that idea?"
"Is anyone else doing that?"

and so on.

If you take the questions, you can divide things up into categories in a little matrix.  On one axis, you have time - past, present, and future.  On the other, you have the relationship to world - abstract, concrete, and parallel.

Concrete is very grounded and practical - people directly doing things to achieve measurable goals according to a specific plan, building an objective track record.

Abstract is where the inspiration and lessons come from - the values and image of a better world, a critique of the status quo and a strategy for change, and the arcs and lessons of movements before us.

Parallel is other people doing the same things in other places.  If we coordinate together we can achieve more than if we act alone.  If they are leading the way, we can borrow from their experience.  If our ideas and action spread far and wide, we can build power to fundamentally change the world.

What's interesting is that this chart lays out some core pillars that an organization should have, but you can't start out strong with all of them (or even most of them), and it's rare to find good balance.  Looking at organizations I've been involved in, I can quickly estimate where we've been strong and where we've lacked.

A small new organization has no track record and little in the way of action, but it can have a strong, if modest plan.  An local branch or affiliate of a national or international organization can have strong examples to follow and can be a part of a growing, supportive movement.  Some organizations care little about the abstract and focus on planning, acting, and building a track record, while many young anarchist organizations focus entirely on vision and action and ignore the rest.

If you accept that all nine components are valuable, then the chart can help zero in on areas that need work - for example, a local branch of a larger organization might be in a lull - in which case it could be seen as equally strong in most areas, but without a concrete plan or action.  And while the larger organization is experiencing some amazing examples, as a movement, it's likely still in the early stages, with little sense for how we can go from a movement to a revolution.

Something else that's interesting is that the different areas feed into each other and compensate for each other.  A new organization, for example, has no track record.  There's nothing you can do to fix that overnight, but as you build a track record, you need to find a way to assure people that you are credible.  That must be done by showing that you have a solid plan and are acting to implement that plan.  But even that may not be enough - in which case examples from similar organizations in other cities will show that your plan and actions have a chance of working.  If nobody is setting an example, then you will have a hard time convincing people - you're left with using more abstract lessons from history.  Or maybe you can just focus on recruiting people that like the action and are less concerned with whether or not it will work.

Likewise, a new small organization will have very small-scale activity at first.  This can be a problem when recruiting people.  If people see a future of small-scale activity many won't see the point.  Maybe even worse would be people joining specifically because they prefer to stay small and then resisting efforts to move forward.

This requires a bit of stone-soup - if you have a plan for growth and the action clearly feeds into the plan, then you can recruit people on the strength of the plan.  It needs to be credible from the beginning. Detailed enough to be credible and desirable, but not so detailed and firm as to be inflexible and the property of the original organizer. The new members need to fully own and adapt the plan as they go forward.  The plan then helps to build the organization that implements and adapts the plan.

Next up, I'll try to start bringing things together, taking concepts from this chart and some ideas from my previous posts to get a bit more concrete:  "Plan, Act, and Reflect: Group and Personal Praxis"

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Spiral and Spokes, Growth and Balance

Growth in raw membership numbers is important, but there’s clearly a lot more to it than that.  When thinking about what a revolutionary group should do, it’s easy to get a big list:  membership growth, leadership development, propaganda, theoretical development, effective external action, fundraising, connections with other groups, track record, movement building, and the list goes on.  But what do we focus on first, especially when we are small with limited reach and resources?  Should we focus on one item first to lay the groundwork for other aspects, or maybe we should try to do it all at once, or maybe be realistic and just do a little bit of everything?

Maybe the more important question isn’t which route we should take, but what should drive our choice?  If we’ve laid out the purpose of our organization and have a solid plan, then the driving force should be that plan.  This is a bit of a chicken and egg problem, of course. We need to recruit people so that we have enough people to do the work of the organization, including external action, and our external action should be carried out in such a way as to involve more people and build a track record that will help us to recruit.

If we are functioning effectively, then all of our resources and activities are heavily interconnected and serve to build each other. This suggests that a simple engineering-style approach is not a good idea.  We can’t create a detailed blueprint, raise money, acquire resources, and then build it out step-by-step.  This approach leads us to realize that we don’t have enough knowledge to create the blueprint so first we must study theory, then study practice, then create the blueprint.  But existing theory isn’t adequate enough, so you must first develop new theory, and so on, until you’ve spent a lifetime getting nowhere.

Instead, imagine a spiral intersecting several spokes radiating out from the center.  The spokes represent the different resources and activities of the organization.  The spiral represents the trajectory of the organization.  Each time the spiral sweeps out a full revolution, each of the spokes is a little more developed.  If we focus too much on one spoke, the spiral is diverted and ceases to make revolutions, instead wandering down a single spoke.  Likewise, neglecting a spoke causes the spiral to distort and dip in on itself.
In reality, the balance isn’t so simple, though.  Even spokes that are equally important aren’t necessarily the same importance at every point in time.  Often after a period of rapid growth (focusing on the membership growth spoke at the expense of leadership development and cohesiveness, for example), it’s necessary to slow recruitment and take time to stabilize the organization before another growth spurt. The important thing is that at any given point, the correct mix of priorities for different spokes is selected to most effectively implement the group’s purpose and current plan.  And often, it’s important to direct only just enough effort and resources in a direction to get the specific job done.  If the organization is growing in every way, it will be possible (and easier) to flesh out those efforts later.

I’ve touched on some thoughts about why it’s hard to break through limits on small groups, how we might break through by going through a series of recruitment and restructuring, how to develop a plan to use this process to get from here to there, and the importance of balanced growth.  It’s time to put the pieces of the puzzle together into something more concrete.  Just a couple more posts laying some groundwork, and then I’ll start to sketch out a local group handbook and toolkit.

Next: Plan, Act, and Reflect: Group and Personal Praxis

Monday, May 2, 2011

Logarithmic Planning for Exponential Growth

In an earlier post (Small Group Size Limits and Self-Reinforcing Feedback Loops), I talked about self-limiting forces within small groups.  In another post (Beyond Small Groups - Organizational Growth and Phase Changes), I also talked about how sizes of groups of people tend to cluster in powers of three, with gaps between them, and suggested that this implies the need for restructuring to accompany growth.  Also, growth needs to be large enough and cohesive enough to accommodate the new structure to avoid stalling and slipping back.

But how might we plan out this growth from the start with a very small organization?

Thinking about growth in exponential terms, here are the group sizes I mentioned in my previous post (adjusted a bit to remove the false implication of high precision) 1, 2-4, 5-11, 15-30, 50-100, 150-300.  Assuming each phase takes a year and a half, here’s a graph of the growth:

The obvious problem with this graph is that it gives the false impression that nothing happens until ten years in and then things take off.  One way to fix that is to use logarithms to show important changes at all points on the graph by stretching the earlier gains and shrinking the later ones.  We can think of each group size as a different phase of growth, and the phase number is just the logarithm of the size: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. If we assume exponential growth, then each jump to the next phase should take roughly the same amount of time.

This graph improves things by making exponential growth look like a nice smooth line.  We can see the changes at all scales.  Since exponential growth can’t go on forever, I have growth dropping off at some point near our ultimate goal.

Still it’s a bit daunting to try to plan that all out in advance, and anyway, we can’t do it because we don’t really know a lot of the details for the later stages.  But if we don’t somehow take these later phases into account, we’ll start out with a lot of assumptions that are incompatible with where we really want to go.  Even worse, if the organization’s membership doesn’t keep an eye on the goal as well as the path there, new members will never even know there was a concrete goal or path and will quickly head off in a completely different direction.

A good compromise is to break things down again.  If we are starting with 2-4 people, starting at phase 2, our far off goal is 8 phases later, roughly 15,000 active members.  It seems kind of crazy to even think of such numbers, but it’s useful to be clear that, yes, our vision involves having many thousands of committed revolutionaries in our city, acting in mass movements many times larger.  Having this relatively concrete vision up front is part of what will make it possible.

A more comprehensible long-term goal is half as many, or 4, phases later, with roughly 200 active members.  The medium-term goal would be half again as many, or 2, phases later, with 15-30 active members.  And lastly, the near-term goal is the next phase, with 5-11 members.

It seems like a decent rule of thumb would be for planning for the near-term next phase goal (5-11) to take half the planning time and be very detailed and concrete.  Specific numbers and measureable targets would be set along with a strategy for achieving them.  These targets would then be used to periodically evaluate progress.  Of course, group size is just one facet that needs attention – I’ll talk about balancing other priorities in my next post.

Medium-term (15-30) would take half as much time as that, or one fourth the total, and be less detailed and concrete.  Long-term would take only one eighth the total time and would just be a rough sketch – though with as many specifics and details as possible, considering.  And lastly, the far off goal would take very little time and be very abstract – as we probably aren’t capable of anything more.

This planning should happen at the very start, and the plan would be used for group evaluation at every step along the way.  As each new phase is reached, this process would be repeated – so a group just reaching 15-30 members would develop new plan for 50-100, 200, 2000 and a far-off goal as well.

One key, though, is that when we consider the future phases, we should think of the phase first as a self-sustaining organization with the resources and structure needed to maintain itself and to launch off to the next goal.  We can mentally envision how that organization would function and what it would require. Then we should consider what is lacking from the earlier phase that needs to be created in some manner.  And finally, we should consider what the earlier phase has to offer to help launch forwards to this goal.  In this way, we construct a concrete, achievable, evaluable plan from here to there.

As I mentioned, growth in membership numbers is important but it certainly isn’t the only or even the most important aspect of an effective organization, even if it can be the easiest to measure.  In my next post, I’ll talk a bit about other important types of growth and how we might maintain some balance between them.

Next post:  Spiral and Spokes, Growth and Balance

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Beyond Small Groups - Organizational Growth and Phase Changes

In my earlier post, Small Group Size Limits and Self-Reinforcing Feedback Loops, I talked about internal forces limiting the number of active members of a group.  While I said that meetings never got much turnout, that doesn't mean that membership necessarily dwindled.  I've been involved in organizations with a local dues-paying membership of 20, 30, or even 250 for a non-revolutionary union.  But still the primary decision making meetings had the same limited turnout, time after time.  We could plan actions and various interesting events and get sizable numbers to show up as consumers, but it was generally the same few people doing the behind-the-scenes work and making decisions.

Here is an example diagram of such an organization, with 6 highly connected active members (red), 16 slightly connected members (green), and 25 distant members with little or no connection (blue).

That's not democratic and it's not sustainable.  The few people making the decisions and doing the work eventually get burned out.  Meanwhile, the rest of the membership isn't being plugged in effectively and aren't developing needed skills and confidence.

Using the concentric circles model from The Purpose Driven Church, such a structure has an overworked core and an uninvolved crowd, with no congregation or committed.  The gap between the core and the crowd makes it that much more difficult to build the core.

So what do we do about all this?  Fortunately people have been researching how groups work and we can learn something from that.  In Discrete Hierarchical Organization of Social Group Sizes, researchers show that "rather than a single or a continuous spectrum of group sizes, humans spontaneously form groups of preferred sizes organized in a geometrical series approximating 3, 9, 27, ..."

What does that mean?  Essentially, if you took various established groups of people and listed out all of the sizes, you might expect that you'd find groups of every imaginable size.  Or you might expect that maybe they wouldn't all be equally common, but at least there'd be a simple pattern in the probability density function, like small groups are more common than larger groups, but that other than a sloped pattern of some sort, the graph would be nice and smooth, with no bumps.  But, no, as you can see below, it's all full of bumps.  Groups tend to be tightly clustered around specific sizes, with sizes between the bumps not very common at all.  It's not quite as simple as 3, 9, 27, ..., but the pattern is roughly that the popular sizes are powers of 3.

As the researchers point out, "It may be that the absolute values of the group sizes are less important than the ratios between successive group sizes."  So perhaps the underlying force driving this pattern has no preference for 3, 9, 27 vs. 2, 6, 18.  This is interesting, because when I looked at my past experience, starting with 3 didn't really match, but starting with 2.55 (or 0.85 instead of 1) actually matched my personal experience very well.

If you start with 0.85 and successively triple it, and then take a range on either side by scaling by 3^(-0.33) and 3^(0.33), you get the following set of numbers and ranges.  What's interesting is that not only does this series match my experience, but the specific ranges seem to match fundamentally different structures of groups.

  • 1:     1       Lone individual
  • 3:     2-4     Informal group - formal structure and even voting make little sense
  • 8:     5-11    Formal process needed to function smoothly, voting makes sense
  • 23:    16-33   Full group interaction impossible, communication needs to be limited, subgroups make sense
  • 69:    48-99   Subgroups essential, full deliberative meetings essentially impossible
  • 207:   144-297 Larger than Dunbar's number - impossible to know everyone, coordination of subgroups is complex

What about the gaps, though?  Presumably there are natural forces that tend to move groups in the gap to a nearby common group size.  Likely down, since these are likely sizes where no structure works very well, causing people to leave until a more workable group size is reached.  Or up if the group sees the problem and fixes the structure and recruits new members.  According to this table, we'd expect that groups of 10 people might be stable, but a group of 13 would tend downwards to 8 people.  In this case, it makes sense and matches my anecdotal experience.  Meetings of 10 people are doable with some good process, but a meeting of 13 would either be long or the process would have to stifle a few people almost completely.  Either way, you'd probably lose a couple people.  And adding complex structure to a group of 13 would seem forced and overly bureaucratic, unless of course, you recruited a few more people.

The research paper, being from evolutionary anthropologists, suggests that the reason for the gaps might have to do with some fundamental limits of the human brain that limit the way we can relate to other people, and the numbers of people we can maintain specific types of relationships with.  They also say that "at present, there is no obvious reason why a ratio of 3 should be important."  Presumably this ratio has something to do with either a limit in human brains or some more fundamental aspect of networks, where a smaller branching factor such as 2 or a larger factor such as 4 would be less functional or efficient.

Regardless, though, how does this help us with our problem?  How do we take a group of more than 15 people but have the same benefits of a smaller, "tight" group?  How can we maintain participation, democracy, social bonds, and leadership development?  And do it efficiently so that people don't flee the organization?  And can we do all that while still growing the organization exponentially?

I'll leave thoughts about growth for another post.  For now, let's look at the simpler problem of a sustainable, more static structure.  Looking at the different group sizes above, I think it's clear that no single structure will accomodate all of them.  In fact, I think a single structure can only really work within one of those ranges.  Each tripling in size leads to a phase change requiring a fundamentally different structure, and these changes probably need to be done in discrete jumps rather than a lot of smooth, incremental changes.

Now, a lot of people already have experience with small groups in the 5-11 range or smaller.  And the problems with keeping such a group functioning are more basic issues of meeting process and group discipline and purpose.  These issues aren't trivial, but I think they apply in all group sizes and don't fundamentally alter the group structure.

But what about a group of 19 active people?  Well, already, for full involvement to be possible, the primary way these people participate in the group can't be in a large full-membership meeting.  They will have little opportunity to express themselves, to contribute, and to learn.  A full-membership meeting is still necessary to maintain group cohesion, but otherwise people need to be primarily involved in the group through a subgroup of some kind.  There can be a few of them, each one probably in the 5-11 range, maybe a bit smaller.

Here is an example diagram of such an organization, broken up into 3 cells with 19 active members (red) and 27 slightly connected members (green).

These subgroups could then coordinate directly with each other or use some time at the full-membership meeting to coordinate.  What's nice about this is rather than drifting towards a small group of leaders and a much larger group of passive members, far more people get a chance for leadership development and making a contribution to the group.

This is the basic idea behind a concept I've been reading about called "Cell Churches".  These are evangelical churches that treat small groups as the primary structure, with larger congregations bringing everyone together for group cohesion.

For a larger group of 69, small groups would still be the primary way for people to be involved in the organization.  The difference from a group of 19 is that there would be far more small groups, so many that simple ad hoc methods for coordinating them would fall down, and coordinating at the full-membership gathering would be too time-consuming, so some additional structure would need to be created to facilitate that.

Likewise with much larger groups, it would make sense to divide up on some criteria such as geographic or language or whatever makes sense based on the group's purpose and strategy.  It would still be one organization, with city-wide, organization-wide projects and struggles, but member's direct involvement would through a smaller section.

This sounds complicated, though.  And if growth requires fundamentally altering the structure repeatedly, how could we make and track plans?  I think I have some possible solutions for this, but that'll be for another post.

Next: Logarithmic Planning for Exponential Growth.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Before I continue on, here's a big link dump of various books and articles I've read recently that helped shape my thinking on the topic of building a growing organization.  I'm also drawing on my experience working in and founding a few local and regional anarchist organizations, as well as the IWW.  There's also an abstract research project I developed recently on the concept of building complex self-sustaining structures from scratch using discrete progressive steps - I'll probably talk a bit about that later, even though the specific details won't be of interest to many people.

Here's the list, grouped into categories and ordered roughly by how interesting I found them.  The short articles are all available online, but many of the full length books aren't.  Fortunately, many of the books can be bought online used relatively cheaply.

Historical examples:
Organizing manuals:

Organization structure and process:
Organizational handbooks:
Articles on small groups in churches:
General organizational discipline:
General information on small group dynamics:

Small Group Size Limits and Self-Reinforcing Feedback Loops

In every revolutionary organization I've been a part of, one thing has been constant -- the number of people consistently coming to local meetings was roughly 5-15, though generally a more limited 5-8 people.  We would try to recruit new people, make the work of the organization more relevant, or find ways to entice inactive members back, but any gains were short-lived.

There is a reason for this.  It seems that at least part of this is due to fundamental limits to organizations.  From evolutionary anthropology, sociology, evangelical church strategy, business research, and statistics, some common threads keep coming up.

In "How to Design Small Decision Making Groups" a dilemma is discussed.  The more people you have in a group, the more likely someone will propose the correct solution to a problem.  But the more people you have, the more communication is needed.  In fact, they show that "the difficulty of managing communication is roughly proportional to the number of possible social interactions" and that the number of possible social interactions explodes exponentially for groups larger than 5.  If you consider all possibilities of subgroup communcation, there are only 26 possibilties for a group of 5.  This grows to over 1000 for a group of 10 and over 1,000,000 for a group of 20.

I've been in many meetings of 5 or fewer people where people grew frustrated or things took too long, but this was generally due either to the group not cutting off a member's long monologues or to a fundamental disagreement where no amount of argument would lead to a consensus.  These are real issues that can be addressed with some basic ground rules and care.

But for larger groups, especially as you approach 10 or even larger, I've seen a greater sense of frustration, where everyone wants to speak and no-one feels like they get a chance.  In these cases, the problem is generally a group process that doesn't scale well combined with basic math.

Imagine a simple scenario where all N people in a group are given the opportunity to speak for 2 minutes, and everyone can respond to others people's initial point for 1 minute.  The meeting lasts 2N+N(N-1) minutes which is 30 minutes for 5 people, almost 2 hours for 10 people, and 7 hours for 20 people.  The problem is clear here, even with severe limitations on communication.  Allowing fuller interaction would make the meeting of 5 take maybe another hour, but 20 people might take literally years of nonstop 24/7 meetings.

So why don't we see meetings of 20 people running on indefinitely forever?  One answer is that some groups find formal structures and processes that limit communication and still hold onto both democracy and effectiveness.  But while these cases raise the reasonable limit to group size, examples where it is raised to 20 or 30 are few and far between.

For most, even in groups that successfully raise the limit with formal processes, there's another answer.  Long before the problem gets impossibly bad it gets frustrating and boring.  Everyone has a different threshold.  Stubborn true-believers with nothing better to do with their time have a high threshold, and busy single parents with two jobs and a skepticism that maybe this group isn't actually going to change the world have much lower thresholds.  As people hit their threshold, they either quit in frustration or gradually disengage as they find more and more higher priority demands on their time.

The result is that as the group grows, it reaches a point where meetings are frustrating or useless to some of the members with low thresholds, and those members leave or become inactive.  If this happens suddenly it can cause a crisis in the group, as the group tries to find a solution to the problem with attempts to get everyone to express their thoughts.  As you can imagine, if the communication explosion was the source of the problem, this causes things to spiral out of control until either a large number of people have left or the group finds another way to drastically limit communication.

But without a crisis, another interesting thing can happen.  As long as a bare minimum level of recruitment is maintained, the group reaches a steady state and stays at a nearly constant size regardless of any additional rate of recruitment.  In fact, any attempt to grow the group through increased recruitment not only paradoxically fails to grow the group, but it has a primarily negative impact - leading to increased turnover, a lower proportion of experienced members, and less diversity due to a greater proportion of people with characteristics associated with higher thresholds, as well as a diversion from other activities of the group.  Again, attempts to address this head-on by quickly scaling up recruitment until the group's growth starts to take off can cause things to spiral out of control.

While less than sustainable recruitment leads to the slow death of a group, this self-correcting feedback loop gives us direct experience that recruitment above that level is at best pointless.  If minimal sustainable recruitment can be achieved without specific thought or effort, then it becomes difficult to see any value in recruitment at all, especially since an organization that is doing good work should be able to attract a minimal number of recruits without additional effort.

For some pro-organizational revolutionaries, this isn't a problem.  Whether it's a study or propaganda group, a cadre group, a project-based group, or even a direct action group, many people have found that a small group is fine.  With a low level of recruitment, the organization can become tight as a small number of people with a high level of agreement and the same high level of involvement learn and grow together.

But that isn't the only option.  For those that seek to build a growing revolutionary organization, this limiting feedback loop presents a dilemma.  With even a low rate of recruitment, a revolutionary organization should be able to grow from 10 to 50 active members in a single city within a few years, opening up new possibilities for action.  Yet this sort of growth is practically unheard of.

I've talked a bit about why it seems like there is a barrier around 10 members that groups frequently fail to penetrate.  In fact, according to "Discrete Hierarchical Organization of Social Group Sizes", evidence suggests there is a series of barriers, with roughly each tripling in group size requiring fundamentally different structural and relational characteristics.  This idea can help us to imagine how a revolutionary organization might grow, crossing these barriers.

Next: Beyond Small Groups - Organizational Growth and Phase Changes

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A beginning

As a child of the 70s, I was born at the height of post-war social change.  The decades since have seen a dramatic retreat on nearly all fronts.  But amidst all the dead-ends, missteps, and short-lived periods of forward momentum, there is a slow awakening beneath the surface.  Somehow the previous generations (and mine as well) lost their way on the path from here to there, but now my generation and a new generation are beginning to pick things up.

As odd as it may sound, there is an attempt to return to "here" - the world we live in and the fundamental organizing principles necessary to build a large movement of people that live in this world.  And we are beginning again to chart a path to "there" - a revolutionary vision of a world of, by, and for the people that live in it.

This blog will be an attempt to gather together my thoughts of how we might find a path.  It won't be one of the paths that previous generations blazed and that has since become an overgrown diversion to neither here nor there.  But it won't be an entirely new path either.  And we don't have the luxury of sitting in our drawing rooms, painstakingly creating elaborate maps of fiction before we begin - leading from a fantasy here to an impossible and irrelevant there.

We are already moving, and there is much work to be done, but as we go I hope to get a better idea idea of where we're at, where we need to go, and how to get there.