As mentioned in a post last month (gosh, it’s been a while since I’ve been blogging), I co-led a session on “Meta-BrainJamming”, aka “Building a Better BrainJam”. It was interesting to me primarily because there is no “right” way to run one of these things; each of the choices is a design choice. One of the things I learned from what Chris Heuer said at this session was that he envisioned the BrainJams as a series of events, where they would try different things at each event to see what happened and whether they wanted to keep it.

I think the fascinating thing to me is how choices in organization and structure are choices about what kind of community one wants to foster. For instance, the five-minute one-on-one sessions encourage a shallow but broad network of connections – you meet lots of people, but don’t really get to know any of them. But if people end up having hour-and-a-half long conversations with each person, they’ll only meet two or three people per day, and the network suffers from a lack of interconnections. Is one of these “better” than the other? Not necessarily. But the communities they engender will be different.

It was interesting how the one-on-one sessions were perceived by different people. I thought they were really interesting because I did not have an agenda going in, so I was open to following conversations wherever they went. Others were disappointed, because they were trying to find or hire people to help them with projects, and were not able to find appropriate people (partially due to the way the one-on-ones were arranged such that people with ideas talked to people without ideas). But it’s again a choice of communities – being forced to talk to essentially random people opens your eyes in a different way than staying within one’s group.

This idea that communities are a result of these sorts of design choices struck me as a really deep insight at the time. I guess it’s kind of obvious, but it’s something I often forget – that communities don’t just happen or grow autonomously. They are a result of the choices made by its members who create the community collectively. Most of the times those choices are made unthinkingly (e.g. “This is the way everybody else does it”), but the choices are still being made. I think a lot of company leaders need to think about what their culture design choices say about their company. But that’s another rant.

One of the things I really like about Chris’s vision for having regular BrainJams is that he can experiment with different ways of running the BrainJams to see which build the type of community that he’s hoping to build. It’s an almost scientific process, as he tweaks a couple variables, runs the event again, and sees if he likes the results. The first time he tried groups of four to six people as an icebreaker exercise. This last time it was one-on-one sessions. Different advantages and disadvantages to both. I’m looking forward to what they’ll try for the next one.

Another advantage of having regular events is that it will help to build a community. The BrainJams themselves can be used as an opportunity to throw the doors open and meet new people, and then it’s up to individual people to build on and strengthen those connections between the BrainJams. This also balances the insider/outsider dynamic – because I can get in touch with people I met at the last BrainJam and talk to them outside of the BrainJams events, it frees up the BrainJams as a time to meet new people and expand my circle.

Some other concerns that came up at the Meta-Brainjamming session were:

  • How to accommodate people that have a specific agenda. There were some people who had projects for which they were looking for people to help them. It was difficult for those people to find other compatible people given the freeform nature of the event. My suggestion was that maybe it would be a good idea to have a way for people with specific agendas to publish them beforehand, so they can be matched up with like-minded souls, while those of us who have no such agendas can go with the random access conversations that currently happen.
  • What will happen when these events grow too large? The first two events have been in the 60-80 person range where even though I couldn’t meet everybody, I feel like I met a significant fraction of folks by the end of the day. If the events grew to 200 or 300, it would be too big, I think. But if the size is limited, how should the event be run to ensure that newcomers are welcomed so that the community can get fresh perspectives? Tough questions. It seems like there’s a Dunbar number limit, so maybe any time a particular BrainJams community reaches a size of 100-150, it splits off into two groups (much like Gore and Associates). There could be cross-pollination between groups, but that would accommodate both the need to keep growing and gaining new perspectives, but also the need for each BrainJam community to stay accessible and participatory. Just a thought.
  • How to keep track of everybody that we talk to. I think the one-on-one sessions were almost too rushed, because people were trying to squeeze conversations into five minutes, which consisted of two minute introductions by each person, which left only one minute for actual discussion. I think Brian suggested that there need to be more frequent breaks (maybe every three to four conversations) so that people get a chance to jot down some notes about who they’ve talked to while they still remember the conversations, and can follow up to get contact info. This might also be a place where having people fill out a one paragraph summary of their interests in their registration form could come in handy – by cross-referencing names to blurbs, it might be easier to reconstruct which conversations one wanted to follow up on. Of course, it’d be even easier if there were a way to automate the whole process (bar codes? 🙂 ).

Okay, enough rambling. I’m amazed I’m able to reconstruct as much as I did about where I was going with this post a month ago when I started it. The main insight: communities are designed, either consciously or not. Think about the kinds of communities that your choices engender.

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