How One Shows Up In Community (Ecosystem Building 101)

Cecilia Wessinger
Oct 18 · 6 min read

(Aka Rules of Engagement, Norms or How to play nicely in the sandbox)


In facilitating a convening of people, it’s good practice to create some “norms”. These are guidelines created by the group to insure the interactions are equitable and proceed in a manner conducive to engagement. The term “Rules of Engagement” has its roots in the military and were passed down to the ranks. In entrepreneurial ecosystem building, like workshops, they are usually compiled by the people present. It becomes a covenant by which individuals pledge to be in community. The Constitutional Convention of 1787 had rules too, including 1) while a member is speaking don’t walk in front, hold sidebar conversations, or read a newspaper or pamphlet and 2) if two men rise to speak at the same time, General Washington will determine the order in which they would speak. These guidelines were in place to help ensure participants felt some psychological safety which enabled freer engagement.

Alas, in mass collaboration, it’s challenging to collect norms and set up guidelines. At the 2017 ESHIP Summit, along with the invitation to participate, there were some suggested.

Rules of Engagement

  • Break rules and dream
  • Open doors and listen
  • Experiment and iterate together
  • Design for the whole system and all points of view
  • Take our work seriously but not personally
  • Know that done is better than perfect
  • Define and own our next steps
  • Have more fun together
  • Pay it forward

People enter the ecosystem in a myriad of ways for numerous reasons. There are some with clear agendas and others who are simply working out how and where they fit in. Having an agenda does not automatically mean they are acting nefariously. The underlying hope is that they come with good intent. Much of the time people tend to be out of sync due to lack of relationships, engagement, communication and knowledge. This is not always visible, because we only see through our lens and how it affects us.

“We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their behaviour.”~ Stephen M.R. Covey

We talk about the “bad players” and archetypes of how people act. We categorize and label them, write theories and format whole worlds around them. There are sciences dedicated to this focus and in researching this I went down several rabbit holes including video game taxonomy, a piece exploring 12 types of people in a collaborative economy and depending on how you Google there are 4, 6 or 10 types of entrepreneurs (enter at your own risk). Regardless of how you slice and dice it, people are people and they will be judged and viewed according to our perceptions, right, wrong or indifferent. While it may seem a bit ‘Pollyanna’ to suppose most people are good, it’s a culture I strive to cultivate and in my experience, most people come to this work with the best of intentions, regardless of execution.

Sometimes people’s behavior is disconnected from ideals of a productive and engaged community, because they are modeling what they have seen. Society has often exalted heroes of industry who win at the expense of others. When these ‘wins’ are seen as aspirational victories, they create habits that are less than optimal. Often times they hold positions of power and influence, either by placement or default. This contributes to generating those deemed as “bad players”, “community czars” and “gatekeepers” in the ecosystem. I’m not saying those don’t exist, I am trying to consider how they came to be this way.

Often times when you join a group, it’s because you believe in the vision and mission of the collective. Because of the lenses we view the world with and our experiences, there’s a tendency to approach things in our own custom and bespoke ways. Our practices are modeled in behavior we’ve observed and we noted which were successful and recognized. As time goes on things move accordingly, the pace is set by drivers (people and circumstances). Sometimes that cadence is isn’t in sync with people on the team, perhaps they get distracted, busy or bored. It then leaves a few people responsible to carry out the mission. They modify the course of action to suit their timing and proceed to do their best in getting the job done. When others come into the circle, the new ones are unfamiliar and former members are now unaligned; it becomes harder to ‘fit in’. On occasion it’s faster and simpler to just do the task than to explain how for another to do. As this goes on, it gets harder to let go and challenging to include others because success is measured in outputs.

Sometimes people are bringing their fears and insecurities as they come into the community. They may have had bad experiences or came from an environment such as the one we explored above. Lack of trust is often compounded by lack of information which leads to duplication of effort, unhealthy competitive practice, silos and scarcity mindset. As this grows, there’s increased ownership and rivalry because you need to stake your claim, it’s a jungle out there and dog eat dog…sheer chaos; the Mad Max world. Not a pretty picture.

The approach we prefer to take is to start by creating a foundation of connectedness. People get to know each other and relationships are formed. From which trust is built, openness is created and people become more engaged. As this develops, there’s more opportunities for serendipity and collisions; fostering innovation and creativity…mass collaboration.

What if success was measured in different ways?

What if impact was about how many community members were actively engaged? How could we see the amount of trust built? Is it possible to gauge the increase of purpose and value felt? What if the purpose of community was not simply to do SOMETHING, but to DO something?

“The key to creating or transforming community, then, is to see the power in the small but important elements of being with others. The shift we seek needs to be embodied in each invitation we make, each relationship we encounter, and each meeting we attend. For at the most operational and practical level, after all the thinking about policy, strategy, mission, and milestones, it gets down to this: How are we going to be when we gather together?”― Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging

So, perhaps we can’t expect that people will know what to do and how to be, since that is not anything we can predict and prepare for. Then what should we do?

We can avoid interactions, be cautious and suspicious. We can be discouraged and unforgiving, worry and lament. Which all leads to not a whole lot of good for anyone.


This is an invitation…we need all of you, because the party is more fun when there’s diversity.

We’ll include you and ask you to dance, and look forward to all of us dancing like no one’s watching.

“Diversity is being invited to the party, inclusion is being asked to dance.” ~Verna Myers

Taking it further to say, “Belonging is dancing like nobody’s watching.”

Cecilia Wessinger

Written by

Community & Ecosystem Builder, Collaborator, Catalyst, Speaker/ Facilitator. Lover of words, ideas and people.

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