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Hackathon Pilot: The Characteristics of Successful Communities of Passion by Sam Folk-Williams

by Chris Grams on April 14, 2011


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Hackathon Pilot: The Characteristics of Successful Communities of Passion by Sam Folk-Williams

A few weeks ago, we kicked off the Hackathon Pilot, an experiment enabling passionate MIXers to collaboratively "write the chapter" on how to enable communities of passion within our organizations (learn more about the pilot here and here). We just finished our first sprint this past weekend and are off to a great start. But don't take my word for it. Over the next week or so, I'll be sharing the ideas of some pilot contributors from across the globe who volunteered to synthesize the large number of contributions we collected into some overarching themes. Today, our first synthesis post comes from Sam Folk-Williams.

The Characteristics of Successful Communities of Passion
by Sam Folk-Williams

We had two simple tasks for our first Hackathon Pilot sprint: list five communities of passion that you think are successful and why, and list five communities of passion to which you personally belong. Through these examples, we can all deepen our understanding of what a "community of passion" is, how they come into being, what makes them work (or not work), and ultimately how we can leverage them as we progress toward the ultimate goal of reinventing management. I spent several hours reading through all the responses and trying to find common elements and learning points. Here is what I found.

Elements of Comparison

As I read through the 60+ posts, several elements of comparison jumped out at me:

  • What kind of community is it (political, commercial, charity, sports, social media, etc)?
  • What is the purpose of the community (share knowledge, innovate, commercial, drive change, etc)?
  • What are some common traits of members (curiosity, enthusiasm, dedication, passion, etc)?
  • Why do members participate (give back, learn, feel good, have fun, get recognition, etc)?

Types of Communities

After I listed about 60 unique examples in a spreadsheet, I began to see some patterns. The types of communities people listed varied widely, but the most popular types were: 

  • Technology-related (e.g. specific open source projects)
  • Motivated by knowledge sharing (e.g. TED or Wikipedia)
  • Sports-related (everything from local sports clubs to fan communities to pro teams themselves)
  • Product-driven (Apple users, forums for product owners)
  • Non-profit or charity-focused (local social/community organizations, aid groups)

There were also a lot of examples that I would categorize as social media (many people mentioned Facebook, Twitter, etc), and many listed places of work (Zappos, IDEO). Some other types of groups got smaller mentions (political groups, alumni associations, music organizations, hobby groups).

Community Purpose or Goal

Looking at the purpose or goal of example communities surfaced a few themes for me:

  • Innovate and drive change. Many people (perhaps not surprising considering the purpose of the MIX) gave examples of communities that are driving some kind of change, often through fueling innovation. The MIX itself is one example and the Tea Party is another.
  • Share knowledge. Many communities exist for the purpose of sharing knowledge. This is often coupled with driving innovation (TED or the MIX, for example) but also included communities around sharing tips for product owners, online gamers, deal seekers, and many others.
  • Share common interests. Several communities exist for the most fundamental reason--to bring people together who like the same things, whether it's a sports team (Green Bay Packers), a fictional character (Harry Potter), or a common experience (Burning Man). While almost every community has this purpose implied, several seem to exist for no other reason.
  • Commercial purpose. Several examples had a commercial purpose (for example, a luxury brand that nurtures customer communities). But, as Alyson Huntington-Jones phrased it, many of the commercial examples were "freedom and accountability-based businesses". That is, they are businesses seeking to do more than just make money. Some exist to make people happy while others are trying to solve a social or environmental problem.

Traits of Community Members

When looking at communities of passion we consider to be successful, what are the common traits of the people who join these communities? Most examples featured "passion" as a core trait of community members. Other traits included:

  • Dedication and commitment
  • Enthusiasm
  • Topical interest
  • Curiosity/desire to learn

If a community of passion is going to thrive, these are each traits that members must have to some degree. A few traits that came up less frequently include:

  • Ideological (Tea Party)
  • Loyal (sports fans)
  • Prideful (luxury brand consumers)
  • Talented (Sourceforge)

Why Do People Join Communities?

Perhaps the most interesting question for me to attempt to answer was “why exactly do people join communities?” When committing time or energy to a project of any kind, most of us consider (if even subconsciously) the “what's in it for me?" factor. The benefits to members of the communities we cited in Sprint 1 included several common themes:

  • Having fun
  • Knowledge sharing/learning
  • Giving back or contributing (often via solving problems)
  • Receiving recognition
  • Meeting/connecting with other people who share similar values or have a common history

For most examples, people listed multiple benefits associated with each community. Contributing knowledge or "giving back" was often combined with learning. In the many open source projects people listed, members receive the benefit of using the software that is developed in addition to receiving recognition and the feeling of satisfaction in helping others through their own contributions. 

In communities centered around knowledge sharing, such as TED, participants receive the benefit of learning, but also of sharing ideas and networking with people interested in similar ideas. The most common benefit I found was having fun, but having fun was most often combined with other things. For example, several people listed communities associated with Zappos (employees, customers, and people interested in the ideas of the CEO). All of these examples cite having fun as a main benefit, but they all have other central benefits as well (a paycheck, consumer value, learning).

Looking at how this group reflected on their own community activities was particularly interesting. Sharing knowledge, driving change, solving problems, and connecting with people who share similar values or a common history were popular themes. Through the process of listing examples they personally belong to, you could begin to see many participants asking deeper questions: What is the definition of community? What constitutes “membership” in a community? I suspect we'll see answers to these questions in coming sprints.

Reading through all of these responses and looking for patterns was a very engaging exercise. I'm afraid that any attempt to do so will inevitably miss a lot of points. And, of course, there are many ways to approach trying to "synthesize" all the great thoughts and ideas that the pilot participants have shared - this is just one of them. I'm very much looking forward to continuing to learn from this insightful group.

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