On the transformative potential of small groups
|Brian Stout||Mar 23|| 8||6|
It is a cruel irony that in the moment in which we need each other most the global COVID pandemic is demanding that we see each other least. We find our physical worlds contracting: geographically into the confines of our homes and apartments; socially to our smallest inner circle of family and perhaps a couple close friends/neighbors. Yet the term “social distancing” isn’t quite right. Stopping the viral spread requires physical distance and separation from others; surviving that separation requires deep social connection.
A repeated theme for me in this newsletter is the notion that we are living amid emergence, a moment of tremendous transition. The arrival of COVID has crystallized that feeling for many of us with a metaphor almost too on the nose. As Chris Corrigan says: “We are all heading into our chrysalises.”
This is a moment of forced pause, a dramatic disruption in the normal frenetic pace of life. As such, it offers a unique opportunity for metamorphosis: as individuals, as societies, as a world. What kind of person do you want to become? What kind of society do you want to live in? What kind of world?
James Currier made an observation about the inherently relational nature of individual change that continues to resonate with me:
The most lasting and effective way to change your life is to change who you’re surrounded by. Since networks so powerfully shape who we are and what we do, the best way to change ourselves is to change our networks.
I want to use this post to explore how transformation happens, focusing on the potential of small groups as the locus of change.
TL;DR: I believe that gathering in small groups is the single most effective starting point for individual, societal, and global transformation… even and especially online. New technology now enables us to find “our people” anywhere in the world, and to connect and build with them. This means that for the first time in history, we have the opportunity to connect a truly global network of changemakers… small groups co-creating a larger whole.
As Margaret Mead famously said:
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.
This great line from Bayo Akomolafe reminded me of the adage from the international disaster response community developing the Sphere standards: don’t just do something, stand there! The point is: we don’t have much time to get this right. The best thing we can do is take the necessary time to choose our next step carefully. I think of the metaphor of defusing a bomb: yes, the clock is ticking... but the stakes are existential. That means we must choose each action very carefully; we can’t afford to just rush in. Here’s Meg Wheatley:
If we want our world to be different, our first act needs to be reclaiming time to think.
I often reference the work of adrienne maree brown, whose foundational book Emergent Strategy is now more relevant and timely than ever. She introduced me to the concept that “what you pay attention to, grows.” What does that mean practically for us, right now, hunkered down in our quarantined chrysalises? Here’s James Clear:
Your actions are a consequence of your thoughts. Your thoughts are a consequence of what you consume. And in the modern age, what you consume is largely a consequence of how you select and refine your social media feed. Choose better inputs. Get better outputs.
It’s time to find your people
adrienne talks about finding and collaborating with people who are committed to “working on excellence.” Following Currier’s point above, the task in this moment is to find the people who can help you be the person you want to become. He offers an example: it’s hard to go vegan on your own. But if your whole family switches, or your whole social group, or the whole city… it’s actually quite easy. Find the people who are trying to build the same world you want to be part of… and build with them. Here are my people:
Small groups make creation and innovation possible…
…By enabling vulnerability and trust. Small groups can do what large bureaucracies typically cannot: provide the necessary psychological safety to allow people to bring their full selves to the task at hand. As such they provide the necessary precondition for the kinds of innovation and creativity we are going to need in this moment of metamorphosis. John Hagel wrote beautifully on this subject ten years ago in describing what he calls the Big Shift. Here he is again, writing presciently just before the pandemic hit:
Small workgroups are the necessary foundation for driving exponential impact… If we’re going to motivate ourselves to come together, overcome our fear and doubts and unleash our hope and excitement, these small workgroups are a necessary environment for coming together, building the deep trust and cultivating the passion to overcome all obstacles.
“Holding space” is a skill: now is the time to cultivate it
Recognizing the power of small groups, a number of organizations and informal communities have emerged over the last couple decades: I’m thinking for example of the Art of Hosting, and the Circle Way. Contemporary innovations seek to focus on our collective hunger for meaning and connection; see e.g. Priya Parker’s Art of Gathering, or Casper ter Kuile’s Power of Ritual (Casper also documents many of these current trends in this beautiful newsletter post).
What does it mean to hold space for someone else? It means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.
She elaborates on why small groups/circles (we often talk of creating “containers” for conversation and connection) can be so powerful:
The circle becomes the space where people feel safe enough to fall apart without fearing that this will leave them permanently broken.
Small group as chrysalis: a safe container for our metamorphosis.
A different way of thinking about scale: from small to large
Malcolm Gladwell’s article Cellular Church explored the role of small groups in a larger network, through the case study of Rick Warren’s Saddleback megachurch. The key point: small groups are both a way to create scale (multiplying small groups) and a way to sustain scale (maintaining the tight-knit bonds formed in the small groups). For any collective endeavor (an organization, a church, a social movement) the key insight is to see small groups as a “fractal” of the broader whole. This was adrienne maree brown’s insight in Emergent Strategy:
How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale… what we practice at the small scale sets the patterns for the whole system… ‘Transform yourself to transform the world.’
So it’s not just that we gather; it’s how we gather. Are we creating, affirming, and living the values and norms we want to propagate in the world? As an article exploring the history of utopian “intentional communities” put it: “Communities are just fractals of society.”
Technology will set you free
There is a big leap between changing yourself and changing the world. Previous theories of change that centered small groups were always a little unclear as to how we make this leap. I love Jean Shinoda Bolen’s work, and this line in particular:
When a critical number of people change how they think and behave, the culture does also, and a new era begins.
But it depends on an assumption of exponential growth through personal contact: you join a circle, then are inspired to create your own, and so on (this quote is excerpted from her book “Moving Toward the Millionth Circle”).
For the first time in history, technology now enables two things that were previously impossible: (1) deep trust and relationship without physical connection (2) the ability to connect geographically disparate groups to each other… without an intermediary. Let’s explore each.
Many of you have probably already experienced this in your personal lives via Facetime and Skype, and are hopefully already experiencing this as you adjust to a COVID world of Zoom meetings and virtual hangouts. Here’s Heather Plett, again:
I now believe that it is possible to create an online space that invites people very quickly into deep work. It is even possible that this can happen more effectively and with fewer barriers than when people are sitting in the same room.
This is the art of holding space… online. People are rapidly innovating in this art, both applying techniques from in-person gatherings and inventing solutions only possible in a digital world. I’m really attracted to Liberating Structures as a tool with great online potential, and software platforms like Sutra that are springing up to speak specifically to this need: building deep trusting connections online.
This is the next step: taking those intimate virtual connections to scale. Lots of really pioneering work happening in real time. I love Richard Bartlett’s experimentation around the concept of micro-solidarity (the fractal!); Fabian Pfortmueller’s explorations around building Community; social-movement focused groups like People’s Hub or Movement Net Lab (this schematic on how emergence happens is really brilliant); and new platforms like Mighty Networks. So far my two favorite examples that seem to hold real potential at scale are Otto Scharmer’s work at the Presencing Institute, and the civic tech space in Taiwan led by Audrey Tang. Seriously, this stuff is mind-blowing and super inspiring. AI for good!
There’s a lot here, and I fear — as always — that I have long since lost all but my most intrepid readers. I’ll explore the theory of change for how we leverage technology to move from small to large in a future post; it’s definitely a current learning edge for me, but one that I’m really excited about. I’ll also say more about what I see as the key components of the fractal (and therefore the whole), and how gender plays into all this.
Before the pandemic hit, Rashida Tlaib had a good line describing the current political moment of rancor and division:
We’re not divided, just disconnected.
Let’s reconnect. We can’t do so physically, so we need to find ways to use technology to build trust, deepen relationships, and collaborate together. Of necessity, we’re suddenly liberated from the boundaries of geography: the world is your small group. I’ve taken to signing off my emails (inspired by Shanelle Matthews) with “In community.” It feels right. This newsletter is one effort for me to find and connect with kindred spirits: in community. As always, I welcome comments.