Taking Your Community From “Good to Great”

I have been re-reading classic business and marketing books with a community lens. I take the concepts and bend them and make the insights work for community. After a few mentions of Good to Great at work, I decided to re-read and figure out how to apply it to community. The book is known for its rigorous research methodology and has been widely recognized for its influence on management practices and principles. It provides insights into the practices that distinguish companies that make a sustained transition to excellence compared to those that do not. Have you read this book? I highly recommended it even if you are not trying to transform your community.

Key Points From Good to Great

“Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t” is a management book authored by Jim Collins. First published in 2001, the book is the result of a comprehensive research study conducted by Collins and his team, in which they analyzed and compared companies that made the transition from good performance to great performance and sustained it over the long term.

Here are some key points and concepts from the book:

  1. Level 5 Leadership: Collins introduces the idea of Level 5 Leadership, which refers to leaders who blend personal humility with professional will. These leaders aren’t typically high-profile or charismatic but are incredibly effective at driving their companies to success.
  2. First Who, Then What: Before determining a strategic direction, companies that went from good to great started by getting the right people on board (and the wrong people off). Once the right team was in place, deciding on the best path forward became much easier.
  3. The Hedgehog Concept: This idea is based on the ancient Greek parable that says, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Good-to-great companies focus on what they can be the best in the world at (and equally important, what they cannot be the best at). This focus is as much about deciding what not to do as it is about deciding what to do.
  4. Culture of Discipline: Collins argues that when you combine a culture of discipline with an ethic of entrepreneurship, you get the magic combination of sustained results and the ability to adapt to change.
  5. The Flywheel and the Doom Loop: The transition from good to great doesn’t happen overnight. Instead, there’s a process of building momentum over time, similar to turning a heavy flywheel. Conversely, companies that jump from one new program or fad to another find themselves trapped in the “doom loop.”
  6. Technology Accelerators: Good-to-great companies think differently about technology. They avoid jumping onto technology bandwagons and only adopt technologies that align directly with their Hedgehog Concept.
  7. The Stockdale Paradox: Named after Admiral Jim Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, this concept emphasizes the importance of confronting the brutal facts of a current situation while maintaining unwavering faith that you will prevail in the end.

From Good to Great Communities

Let’s replace the idea of company with community and see how we can twist the key points to support a community strategy.

Level 5 Leadership

Level 5 Leaders are known for:

  • Their accomplishments Enriching the lives of others
  • Leading their organizations to change the world for the better
  • Setting their successors up for even better results in the next generation
  • Building sustained excellence beyond their tenure
  • Not needing or expecting to receive credit for future successes
  • Putting people first and strategy second
  • Finding the right people for the organization, getting rid of the wrong ones, and putting employees in the appropriate positions
  • Making difficult decisions that may not be popular but are necessary for the good of their organizations

In the realm of online community management, the essence of Level 5 Leadership—blending personal humility with professional will—becomes increasingly vital. As online spaces grow and evolve, the need for leaders who embody these traits can be the determining factor in transitioning a community from good to great.

Personal Humility: Online communities thrive on genuine interactions. A Level 5 Community Manager understands that their role isn’t about being the loudest voice or the shining star, but about facilitating and elevating the voices of others. They actively listen, show empathy, and appreciate contributions from all members, no matter how big or small. By placing the community’s needs and aspirations above their own, these managers foster trust and cultivate an environment where members feel valued and heard.

Professional Will: Equally critical is a relentless commitment to the community’s vision and goals. A Level 5 Community Manager is resolute in maintaining community standards, guiding discussions back on track, and ensuring that the space remains positive and productive. They make tough decisions when needed and do so with the community’s best interest at heart. Their determination is not about exerting authority, but about steering the community towards its shared objectives and aspirations.

To transition an online community from good to great, it’s not just about the tools, platforms, or the number of members. It’s about having a leader who can humbly serve the community while possessing the unwavering drive to uphold its vision. Such leadership ensures that the community remains cohesive, engaged, and purpose-driven, setting the foundation for long-term success and impact.

First Who, Then What

The principle of “First Who, Then What” is pivotal in establishing and maintaining thriving digital spaces. At the core of this concept lies the belief that before charting out any strategic direction or initiating activities, it’s essential to ensure that the right people are in place to drive the community forward.

The Right People: Before determining the content, themes, or engagement strategies for an online community, it’s paramount to identify and onboard individuals who genuinely resonate with the community’s values and vision. These might be moderators, key contributors, or even influential members who have a positive and contagious energy. Their passion, commitment, and alignment with the community’s ethos will significantly influence the direction and tone of discussions, ensuring a vibrant and constructive space.

The Wrong People: Just as important as bringing the right people on board is identifying and, if necessary, parting ways with those who might not be a fit. This isn’t about exclusion but about ensuring the health and integrity of the community. Misaligned members can derail conversations, breed negativity, or create discord. A proactive approach in understanding and managing such members can make the difference between a flourishing community and a fragmented one.

Once the right team of moderators and influential members is in place, the community’s trajectory towards greatness becomes clearer and more achievable. With their collective insights, experiences, and energies, decisions about engagement strategies, content themes, and growth initiatives become more intuitive and effective.

The Hedgehog Concept

In the intricate landscape of online communities, the Hedgehog Concept offers a transformative approach to community management. Drawing inspiration from the ancient Greek parable, where the fox, despite its cunning, is often outmaneuvered by the single-minded focus of the hedgehog, this concept champions the power of simplicity and clarity in purpose.

Understanding the One Big Thing: For an online community to transition from good to great, it’s vital for community managers to truly comprehend what their community can excel at. This isn’t just about recognizing what the community is passionate about, but also understanding what can drive sustainable engagement and where the community’s true value lies. It’s the intersection of these three facets – passion, excellence, and value – that defines a community’s core strength.

Avoiding The Fox’s Dilemma: Just as crucial as pinpointing the community’s strength is the conscious decision to let go of diversions. An online community can be tempted to chase multiple trends, topics, or engagement strategies. However, spreading too thin can dilute the essence and focus of the community. By adhering to the Hedgehog Concept, community managers can avoid the pitfalls of becoming a “jack of all trades, master of none.”

Consistency in Action: Once the central strength of the community is identified, every decision, strategy, and action should align with this focal point. Whether it’s curating content, fostering discussions, or onboarding new members, consistency in promoting and nurturing the community’s core strength ensures that members feel a strong sense of purpose and belonging.

Culture of Discipline

Fostering a “Culture of Discipline” can be the linchpin that elevates a community from being good to achieving greatness. This concept, rooted in the balance between structure and freedom, provides a framework that community managers can adopt to ensure sustained growth, harmony, and impact.

Disciplined People: The first step in instilling a culture of discipline in an online community is ensuring that the people, especially the moderators and key contributors, embody discipline in their actions and interactions. These individuals set the tone for the rest of the community, and their commitment to upholding community values, norms, and goals is paramount. Their discipline is not born out of rigidity but stems from a genuine dedication to the community’s success.

Disciplined Thought: A community that fosters disciplined thought encourages its members to engage in constructive discussions, share informed opinions, and respect diverse viewpoints. This doesn’t mean stifling creativity or debate, but rather promoting thoughtful and meaningful interactions that align with the community’s core values and objectives.

Disciplined Action: Ensuring that the community operates within set guidelines and standards is crucial. A culture of discipline involves taking consistent actions – from moderating discussions and managing conflicts to promoting positive interactions and celebrating community achievements. This consistency ensures that the community remains focused on its goals, even as it grows and evolves.

Yet, a true culture of discipline is not about bureaucracy or rigid control. It’s about creating a space where members feel empowered to contribute meaningfully, knowing that there’s a strong framework in place that supports order, respect, and positive growth. It’s this delicate balance between freedom and structure that allows an online community to thrive.

The Flywheel and the Doom Loop

Online communities, much like organizations, thrive on momentum. Jim Collins’ metaphor of the “Flywheel and the Doom Loop” offers valuable insights into the dynamics of building and sustaining successful online communities. This concept emphasizes the gradual buildup of consistent efforts leading to transformative results, contrasting it with the pitfalls of inconsistent, reactive measures.

The Flywheel Effect: In the context of an online community, the Flywheel represents a series of consistent, well-thought-out actions and strategies that, over time, compound to create a powerful momentum. Initiatives such as fostering meaningful discussions, recognizing and celebrating member contributions, and ensuring a safe environment might seem incremental in isolation. Still, when executed consistently, they cumulatively build a community’s strength and cohesion. Like pushing a heavy flywheel, the initial efforts may appear to have minimal impact. However, with persistence and consistency, the community begins to gain momentum, eventually reaching a point where its growth and engagement become self-sustaining.

The Doom Loop: On the flip side, the Doom Loop embodies erratic, reactionary approaches that disrupt a community’s growth trajectory. Jumping from one trend to another, frequently changing community guidelines, or inconsistently enforcing community norms can lead to confusion, mistrust, and disengagement among members. Such sporadic actions, even if well-intentioned, can derail a community’s progress, much like how erratic pushes can stop a flywheel’s motion.

For community managers, recognizing the power of the Flywheel effect means having a clear vision and strategy for the community and staying committed to it. It involves understanding that building a thriving community is not about quick fixes or sudden bursts of activity, but about sustained, consistent effort. Equally important is avoiding the pitfalls of the Doom Loop, ensuring that decisions are proactive, aligned with the community’s long-term vision, and not merely reactions to transient challenges or trends.

In conclusion, taking an online community from good to great requires the patience and perseverance of steadily pushing the Flywheel, building momentum with each thoughtful action. By avoiding the short-term temptations and inconsistencies represented by the Doom Loop, community managers can ensure that their communities not only grow but thrive and sustain their success over the long haul.

Technology Accelerators

Technology stands as a driving force behind the success of many endeavors, including online communities. Jim Collins’ idea of “Technology Accelerators” underscores the strategic use of technology to propel an entity forward, rather than merely jumping onto technological bandwagons. For online community managers, this concept provides a roadmap for harnessing technology to transform communities from good to great. Is Generative AI a bandwagon?

Strategic Adoption: For a community to truly benefit from technology, it’s imperative that technology serves the community’s core objectives and values. Instead of adopting every new tool or platform that emerges, community managers should critically evaluate how a particular technology aligns with the community’s goals. Does it enhance member engagement? Does it facilitate better communication? Does it uphold the community’s ethos? If the answer is yes, then that technology can act as an accelerator, pushing the community towards greatness.

Empowering Members: Technology, when used right, can empower community members by offering them more avenues to interact, share, and learn. Tools that allow for collaborative projects, real-time discussions, or even gamified engagement can boost participation and foster a sense of ownership among members. However, the key is to ensure that these tools are intuitive, inclusive, and add genuine value to the member experience.

Staying Agile: While it’s essential to be discerning in adopting technology, it’s equally crucial for community managers to remain agile. The digital landscape evolves rapidly, and what works today might become obsolete tomorrow. Regularly reviewing and updating the community’s technological toolkit ensures that the community remains dynamic and responsive to members’ changing needs.

The Stockdale Paradox

The “Stockdale Paradox,” named after Admiral Jim Stockdale, emphasizes the balance between facing the harshest realities of one’s current situation while maintaining unwavering faith in eventual success. This duality of acknowledging challenges without losing sight of the ultimate vision provides a powerful perspective for online community managers striving to take their communities from good to great.

Facing Brutal Facts: Every online community, regardless of its size or niche, encounters challenges. These might range from member conflicts and engagement lulls to external criticisms or technological setbacks. A community manager, akin to Stockdale’s mindset, must have the courage to confront these brutal facts head-on. This means actively acknowledging issues, being transparent with members about challenges, and taking proactive measures to address them. Pretending problems don’t exist or downplaying their impact can erode trust and hinder a community’s growth.

Unyielding Optimism: While it’s crucial to recognize and tackle challenges, it’s equally essential for community managers to maintain an unwavering belief in the community’s potential and future success. This optimism serves as a beacon of hope for members, especially during tough times. It reminds everyone of the community’s purpose, values, and the collective vision they’re working towards. This steadfast belief can inspire members to rally together, contribute positively, and work towards overcoming obstacles.

Balanced Leadership: The true essence of the Stockdale Paradox in online community management lies in striking a balance between realism and optimism. Managers need to ensure that while they’re addressing challenges, they’re also celebrating successes, no matter how small. Highlighting wins, sharing positive stories, and constantly reminding members of the community’s goals and achievements can fuel motivation and foster a sense of collective pride.

Where do we go from here?

As community builders and managers, we should drawing inspiration from any source that we can. We need to discuss, try, learn, and tweak. Building and managing an online community is both an art and a science, blending human connection with strategic execution. Elevating an online community to greatness is not a singular action but a continuous journey of strategic decisions, steadfast commitment, and genuine passion. Do you love what you do?

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