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


  1. hi Greg,
    I wrote a long reply and the internet ate it. Suffice it to say, I like this quite a bit and it speaks to my experiences. Perhaps we could talk on the phone about this at some point. Also, in case you're interested, a thing I'm working on that tries to make use of diagrams (I used them to think, not sure how well they actually convey anything).

    take care,

  2. I'd definitely be up for a chat.

    I really like the idea you mentioned about knitting.