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

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