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.