Confessions of a Community Manager

4 Lessons on Responding to Emergence


As an online community manager, it can be tempting to cook up all kinds of strategies to herd your community in the direction you want them to head. You and your team will certainly need some structure to help community members develop a sense of belonging and focus — though we’ve found that being adaptive to emerging behaviours, barriers, opportunities and membership can really fuel your community’s uniqueness. It’s that uniqueness which will give your community identity and strength.

Four years at the helm of the OpenIDEO community, which by now includes 80k solution-seekers from across the globe, was a pretty wild ride. Did I gain lessons along the way? Hell yes! We’re feeding a lot of those insights into our work at OI Engine which helps organisations problem-solve at scale and also powers public platforms like OpenIDEO. We’re keen to share reflections and inspire others to nurture thriving online communities in all shapes and sizes. Many of them apply to real world communities as well. Let’s start with my favourite : responding to emergence.

Here’s four ways you can keep it real:

1. Build upon insights from lead users

Taking an approach of curiosity over control can widen your perspectives as you support your community’s development. Tune in to cues which will enable you to grow with a shared sense of purpose and direction.

With collaboration at the heart of the OpenIDEO community, our team were obviously keen to create features to support group interaction. Rather than jumping in with top-down assumptions, we spent time observing the behaviour of lead users. We noted that they started giving shout-outs to others who were fuelling their ideas with helpful comments and calling them team members. This insight informed our early team prototypes and eventual features which continue to evolve across our OI Engine platforms.

Exploring collaborations during the OpenIDEO Local Food Challenge — where team behaviours started to emerge.

By now, almost 1000 teams have formed on OpenIDEO, sparking social impact across the globe. A couple of my favourites: an NGO in Kathmandu joins forces with a student group in New York to empower women in low-income communities in Nepal and a 16 year old connects with global professionals to bring real world challenges to the classroom.

2. Turn problems into opportunities

It won’t always be plain sailing. Yet you’ve got the power to change tack in the face of difficulty and steer in the direction of positive possibility.

Although we’ve fully stabilised our platform now, a while back we faced an unexpected site outage on OpenIDEO for over 24 hours leading up to Christmas. I woke to the news and the first question that popped into my head in true IDEO-style was: how might we turn this into an opportunity to listen to our community in other ways? Without a website to turn to, I took to Twitter and asked:

The response was a flood of inspiring tweets on the power of collaboration from around the world. Not to mentioned it affirmed the resilience of our community. One of our seasoned users in the Netherlands even pulled all of the tweets into a round-up via Storify: Collaboration rocks, here’s why. I thought back to the catch cry of IDEO’s Chief Creative Officer, Paul Bennett: never waste a disaster. In our case an unexpected setback created the opportunity to spark a different conversation.

3. Ask your community

Your community is likely to look to you for guidance, tools and tips — but be open to the notion that they’ll have some tricks up their sleeves as well. Sometimes all you need to do is ask.

The OpenIDEO San Francisco Meetup team have worked with banks, startups, social entrepreneurs, corporate design teams and local universities to grow their local meetup community.

Our biggest experiment around this came out of a year of racking our brains across the team on how to increase social impact at OpenIDEO. We thought we’d turn this question to our own community in the form of an Impact Challenge. From ideas contributed, we developed OpenIDEO Meetups amongst other suggestions. To date there have been 500 local gatherings in 54 countries and cities from Accra to Atlanta and Barcelona to Bogota. Impact has thrived via OpenIDEO Meetups — tackling challenges on a local level around renewable energy, youth employment, creative confidence and more.

4. Hire community natives

Another kind of listening comes in the form of tuning in to talent. Observing super users in your community allows you to track their tendency towards curiosity and collaboration capabilities. Best of all, if they’ve flourished in your community, they’re highly likely to be aligned with your team’s values.

Some of the community movers and shakers we’ve brought on to the team have been OpenIDEO’s current Managing Director, Jason Rissman and Community Cross-pollinator, Shane Zhao. Over on the OI Engine team, there’s rock-star designer Karoline K and former NASA aerospace engineer, Amanda Briden. Oh — and right back near the beginning, there was me. We’re from diverse backgrounds, have varied skills and pretty different accents — yet we’re united by our understanding and respect for the community from which we emerged.

Communities by nature are fluid and will evolve dynamically. They thrive when members feel heard and included. Be sure to listen and learn, accepting that things might get a tad unpredictable at times. Don’t panic — it’s organic.

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