Reinvent and Re-energize

Communities need to foster continuous innovation to grow

Launching a community in many ways resembles launching a startup. There are many more unknowns than certainties. There are never enough resources. Getting to product-market fit is a winding journey.

Communities and startups are also similar in one very important way. Steve Blank, the tech startup entrepreneur and godfather of the lean startup movement, coined this definition of startups over a decade ago:

“A startup is an organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.”

It also applies to what it takes to build a community from the ground up. You are experimenting, testing, learning, and implementing on a continuous basis so you can reach a repeatable and scalable community. In other words, building the community flywheel.

I share more about the community flywheel in “Community-in-a-Box”, but I want to share a bit about the last part of this flywheel because it is the most important of part. Many communities suffer from a disease called same-itis. This is where every event is the same template repeated over and over again without variation. While there is some value in a repeatable and dependable model, in time your members start to grow bored with the lack of spontaneity. As mentioned when discussing the flywheel, part of what keeps members engaged is building novelty into the content and experience.

This is what is meant by reinvent and re-energize. Community leaders should always be on the lookout for different ways to engage their members and bring novel experiences and content that both excite current members and entice new people to attend.

Reinvent and re-energize using experiments to make your community thrive
Reinvent and re-energize using experiments to make your community thrive
Reinvent and re-energize using experiments to help your community thrive

Another common startup concept is “Failing Fast.” This is how startups can iterate so quickly, enabling smaller, less resource-rich teams to outpace better equipped incumbents. Though community is not a “competitive market,” you are competing for the time and attention of a fickle audience that has many choices of how they wish to spend their time. The way communities stay nimble and innovate then is to come up with new ideas, try them out, and drop the failed ideas while keeping the good ones.

How do you choose what new ideas to pursue? This is where surveys help. Not only do surveys give guidance from members on what is working and not working, but the free form text boxes suggested in the previous chapter also provide a wealth of unfiltered opinions and valuable ideas. New ideas can also come from other communities, content from blogs, or simply your own musings. There is no formula for innovation, just a willingness to experiment, being transparent with the community, and having the discipline to measure and assess outcomes truthfully. That is how to fail fast in the community context.

One of the experiments I ran at the Enterprise Sales Forum was a program to improve the diversity of the community. I noticed attendance for some events was over 90% men. I was wary of doing just another “Women in Sales” event, though, to drive more women attendees. I knew to have a lasting impact on changing the ratio I would have to consider multiple events and build excitement around the event. So instead of a Women in Sales event, I launched Women in Sales Month for all of October.

The premise was simple. All chapters would host a panel discussion with all women sales leaders during the month of October under the banner of Women in Sales month. The topic could be anything sales related, but the promotion would be “WOMEN IN SALES” for every October event.

The results were outstanding! Events for that month registered over 50% women attendees and the number of women signing up to the community grew tripled from previous months. Now, October is a month reserved by the Enterprise Sales Forum for Women in Sales and has also been recognized by other sales communities as well.

On the other hand, not all experiments work. The Enterprise Sales Forum forged a partnership with a sales training technology startup. The idea was to provide access to their sales training content for free to anyone in the community as a way for the startup to get paid corporate sign ups. After one month of promotion, no one signed up. The team quietly ended the promotion and moved onto other programs.

The lesson here is that being nimble and flexible pays dividends. Not every experiment will yield positive results, but that is to be expected. When presented imperfect data and tight timelines, which is the case for community building, the most informed guess will usually suffice. That is because even a failed experiment is an opportunity to learn and another step towards getting to successful outcomes. As the great inventor Thomas Edison says:

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

The spirit of experimentation and innovation is what also makes the community fun and interesting for organizers and volunteers. Depending on the cadence of your events, you might consider brainstorming sessions on a bi-monthly or quarterly basis with the team to come up with new ideas, improvements to processes, and ways to better engage the community. Doing so sends a message that innovation is welcome and those most involved have a say in guiding the future of the community.

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Thomas Edison
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Thomas Edison

This finalizes the fifth and final part of the community flywheel. If you are curious about the others, read more about them in Community-in-a-Box, but let me summarize the first four here:

· Recruit volunteers

· Build the promotion engine

· Operationalize and automate

· Measure what is most important

Once you plug in “foster innovation”, you have all the components needed for your community flywheel. Do these things well and you will create a feedback loop that brings in more volunteers, powers your promotion, enables better ways of operating, and leads to better metrics and analyses that lead to further improvements. That is the foundation of a long-lived and healthy community!

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Thoughts on developers, digital transformation, enterprise agility, community building & software engineering culture. Author 👉 https://twitter.com/marksbirch

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