Now, more than ever, we need to learn faster. In a rapidly changing world, learning becomes a key driver of survival, not to mention success. But it’s a very different form of learning from the one we experienced in school or in our training programs – that learning is about sharing existing knowledge. That can be helpful but, in a rapidly changing world, keep in mind that existing knowledge becomes obsolete at an accelerating rate.
In this kind of world, the most valuable form of learning is creating new knowledge through action and by working together. How do we do that? We need to find ways to come together and participate in communities – but they’re a very different form of community than the ones that most of us know today.
Communities of interest
Many of us participate in communities of interest. They take many different forms. They could be a book club that meets monthly to discuss an interesting book. They could be an online social media group that comes together around a shared interest like gardening or blockchain. They could be a group that comes together in conferences framed around particular areas of interest – anything from certain genres of music to personal growth or business domains like marketing or digital technology.
These communities can vary significantly in size, ranging from 5-10 people in a book club to thousands of people at a large conference or in a social media group.
Participants in these groups share an interest and enjoy connecting with others to discuss this interest. Sure, there’s some learning that occurs in these groups but it’s fairly random and mainly about sharing existing knowledge.
Most of these communities are not driven to learn faster together. They’re just an opportunity to enjoy time together around shared interests. I wrote about the virtual version of these communities of interest more than 20 years ago in my book, Net Gain.
What’s missing in most of these communities of interest is an experienced and motivated moderator who can help the group to learn faster together. Moderators can be powerful catalysts for conversation and can help to focus the conversation on powerful questions that can inspire participants to come up with new ideas and insights as they embark on a shared quest to venture into areas they have not explored yet.
These groups also generally don’t create opportunities to step back and reflect. Do the participants carve out time on a regular basis to step back and reflect on what they’ve learned and on what new questions are emerging from their conversations? That’s very rare, but can be hugely valuable in focusing new learning.
Communities of impact
These are very different forms of communities. Participants in these communities are driven by a desire to act together in ways that can achieve increasing impact in a particular domain. It’s not just about action for the sake of action, it’s about achieving specific forms of impact. They are relentless in measuring that impact and seeking ways to increase their impact over time. That’s what motivates them to learn – they are seeking to discover new approaches that will help them to achieve more impact with less effort and fewer resources.
The core unit in these communities of impact is a small group of people – typically 5-15 people. In some of my other writing, I have referred to these units as “cells” or “teams.” These impact groups remain small because their success hinges on forming deep, trust-based relationships with each other. The participants in these impact groups get to know each other extremely well, both in terms of their strengths and their weaknesses, as well as their motivations. As I’ll discuss in another blog post, deep trust is a key to accelerating learning when it involves creating new knowledge. If the impact group gets much beyond 15 people, those deep, trust-based relationships become more challenging to build and maintain among all the participants.
These impact groups meet on a frequent basis – usually at least weekly and potentially even daily. As they form deep, trust-based relationships with each other, they become more willing to express their vulnerabilities and ask for help from others in their group. Participants in these impact groups connect on an emotional level and not just an intellectual level. They challenge each other if they sense that participants are becoming too passive or losing the excitement that motivates them to move beyond their comfort zone and they support each other when they sense that participants are becoming frustrated or overwhelmed by the roadblocks or obstacles they are encountering.
Participants in these impact groups are often driven by a very specific form of passion. I call it the “passion of the explorer” and I’ve written widely about it, including here and here. These impact groups can be found in areas that display sustained extreme performance improvement, including extreme sports and online war games.
Communities of impact scale by finding ways to connect the small impact groups into broader networks, that I have called “creation spaces.” In these creation spaces, impact groups can interact with the broader community and learn from the initiatives and experiences of the other impact groups in the community. These impact groups can pose questions to the broader network to see if anyone has any ideas or suggestions on how to come up with high impact answers. They can observe the approaches and impact achieved by other groups and develop new insights on how to achieve even more impact. There’s an interesting balance that emerges within these communities of impact – at one level, the impact groups are competing with each other to see who can achieve even greater impact but, at another level, they are collaborating with each other because they are driven by a shared commitment to increase impact.
Unfortunately, these communities of impact are very rare in our business and personal life. If we’re really committed to creating new knowledge through action together, we need to find ways to cultivate more of these communities of impact. This usually begins by finding an area that we are passionate about and then seeking to connect with others that share this passion and a desire to achieve increasing impact in that domain.
Often participating in these communities of impact can deepen our passion. It can be very invigorating to connect with others who share our passion and to act together in ways that deliver increasing impact. That can help us to overcome our fear and deepen our excitement about the opportunity to make a real difference in areas that are meaningful to us.
These communities of impact can emerge from local initiatives, but they can also be catalyzed by organizers who see the potential for scaling learning. One powerful organizing tool to help cultivate communities of impact is something that I call opportunity-based narratives, that I have written about here and here. These narratives are very different from stories. They frame an inspiring opportunity out in the future, but they make it clear that addressing this opportunity requires many people to come together and take action. They are a call to action and a call to learn since they make it clear that the opportunity itself, and the approaches to addressing the opportunity, are not yet fully defined.
These opportunity-based narratives can help to focus the initiatives and learning of the participants in the communities of impact. They leave a lot of room for local improvisation, but they help to cultivate a shared commitment to the kind of impact that will make a real difference in helping this opportunity to materialize.
So, what does this have to do with the physical communities that we all live in? Most of these communities have a long history and they have basically become communities of convenience. We live there because we were raised there or because we were drawn by an opportunity for work or because of an attraction to a particular climate, setting or lifestyle. We likely have friends there but, unless it’s a very small town or neighborhood, we certainly don’t know everyone there.
Unfortunately, for an increasing number of physical communities, we’ve lost a deep sense of connection with the community and commitment to the success of the overall community. We have become increasingly passive and/or polarized.
Here’s an idea. What if we framed an opportunity-based narrative for our physical community – what amazing things could we accomplish if we all came together and committed to increasing our impact in addressing a shared opportunity? We could transform physical communities into communities of impact, starting with small impact groups, but rapidly scaling into networks that draw together more and more members of the community.
It can be done. Forty years ago, I was drawn to a physical community – Silicon Valley. There were many factors that attracted me, but one of the most powerful ones was the sense that this was a community driven by an opportunity-based narrative. More and more people were coming to Silicon Valley from all over the world because they were drawn by the opportunity to change the world by harnessing the growing potential of digital technology. It provided a sense of connection and shared commitment to increasing impact that I’ve found deeply inspiring for a number of decades.
We live in a world that is rapidly changing, bringing both exponentially expanding opportunity and mounting performance pressures. Harnessing the opportunity and overcoming the pressure will require all of us to learn faster, together. We can do that through communities of impact. If we can find ways to evolve our existing communities of interest and physical communities into communities of impact, we will find ways to come together to achieve far more of our potential. Let’s get started.