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Complexity, Simplicity and Why Community Is Difficult for Organizations

The markets that organizations deal with daily are complex. They always have been but that complexity used to be easy to ignore. Now we can no longer ignore it because it is playing out across the Internet in real-time, many people and organizations react by retrenching and becoming even more rigid about what they know and how they operate. They are too confused and anxious to try something new. To further calm our anxiety we try to plan and manage even better. But it is a losing battle because responding to complexity with complexity just escalates the challenge. The only way to fight complexity is with simplicity. Dave Grey’s new book, The Connected Company takes on how organizations will need to adapt structurally but that theory is still challenging to put into practice. How do we as one person begin?

I saw Pamela Warhurst of Incredible Edible on the Meaning Conference live stream yesterday. She talked about how one person set off a series of events that culminated in economic growth and sustainability for one small town in the U.K. and it reminded me of how communities grow and how they return amazing and unexpected benefits as they grow. From what I understood, the story went something like this:

  • Mary started a garden in her front yard and clearly made all the vegetables and fruits in that garden free to anyone. Not having a collaborative culture in the town, it took two years before anyone took any of the vegetables.
  • Once the first few people finally came and got vegetables, that quickly turned in to a culture of reciprocity and people started leaving things as well as taking others and, more importantly, talking to each other and forming relationships.
  • Other people started gardens. Some people started gardens at the community college, on street corners, at the police station and at the train station.
  • Other people started cooking classes, some right out on the sidewalk, to show others what to do with the vegetables.
  • Volunteers started vineyards and taught each other to graft trees to reduce the cost of buying trees.
  • The local farmers got involved and as demand for their fresh products grew, they started investing in fresh eggs, cheese and meats.
  • Restaurants and a bakery started up and prioritized local ingredients because people were starting to ask about their local ingredients.
  • As the community became more active, economic activity grew and people became more confident. Traffic patterns changed and people starting enjoying the sense of community and togetherness. Most of the businesses in town saw their sales increase.

In this story, there are some valuable lessons for community leaders everywhere. Here are my take aways:

  1. Initially what you are doing may land on deaf ears. For a long time. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it will not succeed and it certainly doesn’t mean it is not worthwhile. It just means that it needs low grade care and feeding while people get comfortable with it and understand it.
  2. Early success is in changing people’s patterns and behaviors, not in financial gain or cost avoidance.
  3. Communities require a lot of individual action to be successful so it is critical that actions be meaningful and small initially.
  4. The impact of hundreds of small actions on economic output can be significant.
  5. The impact of the collective action would not have been possible with a traditional business plan or model. There are huge opportunities for those individuals and organizations that can cede control and not insist on consolidating 100% of the output.

All of these things are really challenging for traditional organizations to understand and execute. It requires patience, long-term thinking, support for giving away before you take a reward and a ceding of control in how the evolution will occur. Tough stuff but possibly the only approach for survival in this day and age.

For more from Pamela Warhurst, see her TED talk.

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