The role of strategic patience in building meaningful communities

Photo by Gabriel Jimenez on Unsplash

This is a continuation on my reflection about our unhealthy relationship with time and how it affects the way we build and show up in communities. In this post I want to look at the relationship of communities with time from a big picture perspective.

Observations about communities and timeframes

In a society, where nobody has time for anything, where time has become the scarcest of resource, as a community leader I often find myself in a funny spot:

People tend to expect short-term value out of their communities. As a community leader I feel that pressure and I constantly ask myself how I can help people with clear, tangible, short-term outcomes. I had an inspiring conversation with Jerry Michalski last week who made me realize how so much of our current behavior is driven by our culture of consumerism and productivity. As consumers, we expect things to have clear value, why else would we engage with it? As participants in the market economy, we try to optimize every bit of time for productivity. And through technology we have become so used to receiving instant gratification that our willingness to wait, to engage long-term has gone down drastically. All of these expectations are also put on communities.

But communities suck at delivering short-term outcomes. Communities are based on trust and belonging. Trust and belonging take a long time to grow. And trust and belonging need constant gardening, constant care, over a longer period of time. There are other group formations, especially teams (and sometimes movements), that are much better at delivering short-term value. Teams usually have a clear external purpose that they are solving for with a timeline attached to it. And everyone is walking towards that goal. Communities, on the other hand, often have much broader, fuzzier, more internal goals that you can’t achieve in weeks or months. I’m convinced that in many ways communities create tremendous value, but the time horizon is very different from other ways of social interaction.

Too many communities only exist in the short-term. Partially as a result of the mismatch between expectations and ability to deliver on them, many groups don’t exist long enough to actually create value. And I sense that this has a negative side effect on people: they become even more hesitant to invest themselves fully into a group, because so many groups that started with a lot of excitement ended up fizzling out. So why invest yourself in the first place?

People are hungry for meaningful communities. But there is a gap between what people say and what they actually do. Many people I talk to are looking for deeper, more authentic connections. They see how their communities are somewhat superficial and short-term driven. But at the same time they are not necessarily willing to invest themselves longer-term (because they actually expect short-term outcomes). It’s a funny circle.

My conclusion: a generous timeframe is a massive challenge and opportunity for communities

Based on all the thoughts above, I’ve come to the conclusion that providing people with spaces that don’t feel hurried, that have patient timeframes and that are designed to exist in the long-term are one of the most valuable things we can provide in today’s world.

But ironically it’s also one of the hardest ideas to sell to people. So how do we overcome this gap?

The role of strategic patience

I argue that “patience” should become a strategic tool in our community builders toolbox. Here are some raw thoughts where I can apply patience in a strategic way when building communities:

  • Setting the expectations of myself and my co-creators: setting realistic expectations is everything and that has to start with myself and my fellow co-leaders. We need to ask ourselves: how long are we willing to consistently invest into this group and by when do we expect to see a community return? A crucial element of that is defining success: what value do we hope the community ultimately will create for each other? What’s a realistic time frame to get there? And by when do we want the community to be mostly run by itself?
  • We have to keep reminding ourselves that most communities will take at least 3–5 years to mature and become meaningful. This depends of course on a variety of variables, including size and context, but I dare to generalize that it’s simply not worth starting a community for a timeframe any shorter than that.
  • Setting long-term expectations of members: if we as the community leaders have a long-term arc in mind, we have to be explicit about it and tell members about it before they join. And ideally this becomes part of our commitment and agreements: when joining this community, I know that I’m joining for at least x months.
  • If you start communities with a shorter timeframe, it’s important to be explicit for how long a commitment you have in mind. For example, it can make sense at the beginning to have a test period of 6–18 months, to test out if this group of people even wants to be a community and is willing to invest long-term. It’s crucial to make it very clear that there is an end date to this first phase and that a longer-term commitment will have to be decided then.
  • We have to find a balance between short-term and long-term projects. I don’t think there is a simple formula for this, but it’s important to find a mixture in our activities that promote both short-term outcomes (often around creating value through collaborations, learnings, events) and investing into longer-term values such as deepening relationships among members, building more trust, etc.
  • Generous experience design: I believe that we tend to over-crowd and over-plan many of our experiences. I think there is more to uncover there and I’m writing a separate post about how to apply a generous timeframe and patience to experiences.

How are you thinking about patience and time in community? I’d so appreciate hearing your thoughts!

Originally published at on January 24, 2019.

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Fabian Pfortmüller

Written by

Grüezi, Swiss community builder in NYC, author of @CommunityCanvas, co-founder Together Institute,

Together Institute

Hi there, we are Together Institute, we exist to help people and organizations build more meaningful communities. Here is where we share what we learn and think about.