Why decentralized communities need community managers (Part VI of Building culture in decentralized organizations)

tl;dr: This post is the last in a series surveying the experience of professional culture builders and what their common experiences tell us about building culture in a decentralized organization. I conclude the series with an argument that decentralized communities should PM their culture building projects.

Decentralization, decentralization, decentralization, bottom-up, bottom-up, bottom-up. One thing I enjoy about the SCRF community is that there is a good dialogue between ideological hopes and learned experience, and a lot of people here have found themselves begrudgingly willing to institute hierarchy, accept leadership, rediscover bureaucracy, and use influence. That’s important because of it reflects capacity for nuance, and a preparedness to put being effective over being right. For example: can a group’s culture be planned and implemented by a lead?

That’s what we’re going to get into in this post. I’ve been researching culture change in traditional organizations for what insights we might get for decentralized organizations. Although a traditional organization is very different from, say, a DAO, one thing I’ve learned from talking to culture builders is that an organization’s cultural dimension must be driven by bottom-up needs. This is a hint that all kinds of groups can learn from what culture building professionals have to share.

If you’ve ever experienced a community with a strong culture, you understand the value, and you understand why it is worth trying to demystify and systematize the process of building it. When you are part of that kind of community, people feel like they are a part of something, they build meaningful relationships and incubate exciting projects, they experience alignment between their personal and professional, and an organization starts to benefit from all the sundry upsides of a large number of closely aligned, intrinsically motivated people who see their group as the vehicle for accomplishing what they want to accomplish in the world. For all these benefits, at both the individual and collective level, I think it’s worth demystifying culture change, and articulating the value of treating it intentionally.

“If you don’t methodically set your culture, then two-thirds of it will end up being accidental, and the rest will be a mistake” — Heskett, Win from Within

Certainly your culture will evolve and even grow without leadership. Nothing can stop that. So do we need to talk about the process of change, or planning a change? For that question, I draw from Heskett’s Win from Within: “If you don’t methodically set your culture, then two-thirds of it will end up being accidental, and the rest will be a mistake." In the picture that this and other authors paint, only a fraction of bottom-up hopes assert themselves without active support and encouragement.

So one clear takeaway from across many voices is that if you want your culture to change in a specific way, then you have to treat culture change like a project, and that project needs a project manager. The inherent bottom-upness of culture, that it is the sum of its constituents, means that any individual can give themselves inordinate power over the culture, even if what they actively want for it is different from what the vast majority passively want. We’ve all seen culture go bad, or just neutrally drift somewhere neither good or bad. Cosmically that’s fine, but if building meaningful communities should be accessible to everyone, and if building meaningful culture is a part of building meaningful community, then it should be accessible to everyone as well. Just like it should be possible to build the community that you more or less intended to build, it should be possible to build the culture you more or less intended, one that integrates bottom-up hopes of the membership with the needs of the goal or purpose of the community.

That is why I’m following the conclusions of my research in suggesting that culture building is a project and it should be PM’ed. Again, this doesn’t mean culture building should be top-down, it means that the bottom-up nature of culture building need explicit encouragement and stewardship.

The mapping of culture work to project management has strengths and weaknesses. Culture work is akin to project management because both are about deviating in a systematic planned way from the status quo. But it is different because a PM in culture work has to be as much of a “reader” of the community’s state as a “writer”: maybe even more reader than writer. Culture is such a specific and empirical (therefore iterative) design space, and it is very about building and maintaining enthusiastic consensus. Unlike most project management, the culture building PM’s legitimacy and mandate come from below. This is true in traditional organizations and even more true in decentralized ones.

Maybe it’s better to talk about “CM’ing” than PM’ing: my claim from this research is that a community needs a culture manager or steward who is resourced and empowered to apply the stages of project management to hone and amplify a community’s latent commitments into a group with shared identity, goals, values, behavior, whose environment is supportive, and whose individuals are valued.

Cultivating those qualities is something that can sometimes magically happen on its own, but it can’t reliably happen on its own. To happen reliably, or as reliably as possible, it needs project management. According to the Project Management Institute, and the general accepted practice of professional PMs, there are five phases of a project:

  • initiating

  • planning

  • executing

  • closing

  • monitoring and controlling

I’m not a trained PM myself, and only one author (Briody) makes this connection explicitly, so I’m taking a narrative leap and making conclusions of my own, but this frame fits what I learned about how culture building professionals build culture. Before going through these I’m going to prepend a zeroeth stage: Recruit

Recruit

The premise of this post is that culture change needs a project manager because it is a process and that process should be reliable. Who should that be? Can it be anyone? In most organizations there is no such role. In some organizations mid-level managers are given that role, and more or less support in fulfilling it. But most commonly the culture change steward is an outside consultant specializing in the process. These are the people who have been my primary data source, using either interviews or books as a window into the mental models that underlies their general approach.

My original sense of the scene was cynical: organizations use consultants because they want to throw money at the problem of culture change rather than doing anything real. But after talking to several, one hidden reason emerged that makes a consultant the ideal agents of intentional, planned culture change: they are outsiders. The person in the role of PM needs an honest assessment of the org from all of its members. They need people to open up to them, and trust them not to have an agenda. Take a question like “What are the ways that working for this company does or doesn’t align with your values?” Your answer will obviously be different if the question came from your manager than from an interested, sympathetic, neutral outsider. Accountability to a manager, and the fact that most work interactions are tacit evaluations, would interfere with the honesty and bluntness of most people.

An advantage of decentralized organizations is that a community can do this work for themselves, not because all members are outsiders but someone among them is more likely to retain the qualities that makes outsiders effective, despite being insiders.

So who should take this on? Can anyone do it? That was the motivating of one of my first posts, and the answer was, generally, yes: effective culture change isn’t rare because only a few people can do it, it’s rare because it’s a lot of work following steps that aren’t clear.

Still, some people are better at it than others. My informal sense from the research is that the community member recruited to PM culture should enjoy listening to others, be good at receiving feedback, and minimally charismatic. They should be seen as non-political in the community, should be capable of managing a project, and should probably believe in the value of strong culture. I don’t have an opinion as to whether they should or shouldn’t be prominent, or even particularly well-liked. When we talk about recruiting a point person or leader for the role, it’s not for a person who will be the source of the answers, but the source of energy for change. Intentional change from a status quo takes intentional effort. A person with the energy, attitude, buy-in, and other supporting qualities.

Other thinkers go more granular. In the case of teams specifically for delegating culture building work, “Great Mondays” author Levine shares a creative and intriguing taxonomy of how to decide the composition of a team on the basis of what part of culture building they are responsible for. I can’t judge that it’s right, but it made me think:

  • For refining the community’s shared purpose, Levine recommends assembling “veterans, visionaries, and blockers,” with exercises such as working together for three hours in a spacious area to write an obituary for their company.

  • For reinforcing the connection between the community’s higher purpose and daily activities, Levine recommends collecting creative employees around assignments such as drafting cues to implement and creating a record of the types of cues that creative employees find inspiring.

  • For refining the community’s shared values and beliefs: community members “who feel representative of the company’s ideal culture” should gather around the prompt of their commonalities

  • For developing initiatives that recognize and reward great contributors (and thus reinforce the values and beliefs they represent), Levine recommends “employees who have been with the company for a comparatively long time” for activities such as “Over the course of two hours, participants describe recognition as it currently exists and pick a value that it seeks to reward”

  • For developing a shared sense of ideal shared behaviors, Levine proposes that the same “Culture All-Stars” from above brainstorm three types of behaviors: those that exist now and should stop, those that should continue, and new behaviors to strive for."

  • For developing rituals that help behaviorally reinforce shared behaviors and bonds, Levine suggests community members "of any tenure who are generally well-liked but not part of management" to “understand the importance of rituals” and to identify what makes a ritual effective.

A person or small team with the right qualities is especially important for the first and most crucial and sensitive phase of PMing culture change.

Observe (often called Initiate)

The approach I am advocating, “PM’ing culture change” sounds very centralized, top-down, and even anathema to the decentralized organization. There is pretty much only one thing I can point to to defend myself. And that is the faith that a person exists who can extract, distill, plan, execute, and monitor a will of the people without much distortion. To have any credible claim to emergence, the very minimum you need to be able to say is that you have top-down stewardship of a bottom-up goal. Your steward needs to be a credible listener and impassive vehicle or container of the collective will. Some of that they may start with by being a certain type of person, but most of it they will build by being a good active observer.

Steps:

  • Steward talks to everyone, or as many people as possible, of as many types as possible. The full variety of stakeholders should be represented.

  • Community members approached should be asked about their personal goals and values, and their perception of the goals and values of the community, with differences made clear. Extracting this effectively may include creating the sense of a gentle, natural conversation. There are lots of tricks here. Although my first major finding was that all of my informants are “doing the same thing” at some level, their approaches were obviously different, and those differences were clearest in the tricks they use (prompts, exercises, etc) for eliciting this sense of things. While culture change at the highest level has a clear method, a lot of the “art” of it seems to come down to these details of execution.

  • After talking to enough people, the steward may have found some strong similarities and common threads, or they may find dizzying variety. PM next needs to share this sense with the community, or get them to share it with each other, or get it from the community as a community for how their sense was wrong and way. Across culture change practitioners, this happens in a synchronous conversation that they convene and facilitate. This conversation is small enough for all members to meaningfully contribute within a few hours, say 8 (max 15) people for a session of 1 or maybe more 2 (max 4) hours. In a small org, this should be everyone. In a larger one it should be among a (handpicked?) group that legitimately represents the types of voices in the community.

The PM will lead this conversation toward the goal that there is some shared sense of what the individuals want, what the collective is doing, and how those two things are different. There are lots of ways to get there. A PM with enough legitimacy, or facing a clear enough consensus, doesn’t have to coax the sense out of everyone, they can just report their personal “sense of the room” and invite reflections. There are risks here. Legitimacy is a finite resource that off-the-mark assertiveness will sap. PM’s spend their legitimacy on leadership, taking a more or less assertive approach to these conversations. A good PM has the mix of confidence and sensitivity to do this with restraint and elegance, and room to be wrong. Conversely, a PM facing a very diverse and/or suspicious community should probably build that sense by letting the words come from the community. But the PM should also take more leadership if there are themes that came up 1-1 but are hard to say or hear to a larger group. It is on the PM to make sure those things get said, one way or another.

Maybe this facilitated group conversation will naturally and efficiently conclude with a clean account between how things are and how they should be. Maybe it will take more. But it is vital that the PM and community stick to this process until there is a tractable list of deltas between where the community is and where its members want it. This will mean extracting and negotiating, voicing, refining, decomposing, and ordering the many thoughts of others. And once they are consolidated, minimizing those deltas will be the work of the culture building project. it may involve changing member’s goals/values to reflect those of the community, but it is more likely to involve changing the community (its structures, processes, and public presentation) to better reflect the members. The Observe stage will end with the PM confidently and credibly announcing these deltas as the collective’s will for the project. With that Observe is over and the Planning stage begins.

Planning

The observe stage saw the PM go in and talk to people (“bottom-up”), developing their own personal sense of the landscape in the process (“top-down”), testing/refining/validating that sense in a group conversation (“bottom-up”) and then reporting a final set of high-level goals that resulted (“top-down”). Each of the subsequent planning, execution, closing, and monitoring/controlling phases can follow the same cycle of dialogue between levels. I say can and not should. It’s a lot more work and a PM may only have so many resources to continuously cycle back and check in with everyone for everything. If the PM retains the community’s confidence then maybe they should feel confident sometimes just acting on their mandate for some phases.

For example, the planning stage means taking some abstract deltas and making a plan. Here are some deltas I made up:

  • “Members don’t feel like their voluntary contributions are being valued”
  • “Members seem to care more about environmental sustainability than you would expect given that this isn’t an environmental organization.”
  • “The community doesn’t represent stated value X as well as other communities, but has incidentally become a hub for people who hold underrepresented value Y.”

What actions can be taken to close those deltas? It’s not an easy question to answer, but note that it’s easier than answering “What actions can be taken to change this community’s culture.” This is where we start to really see the value and importance of PM’ing culture change. For culture to change in an intentional way there has to be intentional action. There has to be a plan, and resources and buy-in to support that plan.

The PM can generate a plan for each delta however they like, with more or less formal cycling through the community for brainstorming, confirmation, or refinement. Consultants I talked to often come in with a toy box of tricks and processes to break out once they know what problem to solve, while others take a more iterative and generative approach with the community they are serving, especially if execution will be on those people and not the steward.

Example plans for each delta:

  • “Members don’t feel like their voluntary contributions are being valued”

    • Find three energized community members to deputize to create or re-energize an existing underutilized #kudos channel by populating it each week.
    • Airdrop an “acknowledgement token” that self-destructs if it isn’t re-assigned within the week. Publicly acknowledge the recipient of the most acknowledgements with a small interview about them and their most exciting project.
    • Work great members into the community’s memes
  • “Even though this isn’t an environmental organization, members seem to care about environmental sustainability than you would expect”

    • Add sustainability to the language of the community’s mission statement
    • Create and populate a sustainability working group, stewarding it as far as having a first well-defined project.
    • Create resources or bounties for transitioning the community from tools based on proof of work or any other energy intensive source of validity.
  • “Community doesn’t represent stated value X as well as this other community, but has incidentally become a hub for people who hold underrepresented value Y”

    • Rename community after value Y
    • Change onboarding or recruitment to highlight value Y
    • Start a competition for mechanisms that incentivize Y

At first it may sound anathema to plan culture change. But making a mysterious, ineffable process less mysterious and ineffable is a good thing, even if that means reframing it in the prosaic, unromantic, and unsatisfyingly non-ideological terms of project management.

Execute

The planning stage should have developed realistic interventions, what’s left is to do the work.

In the normal corporate or organization setting, the agents deputized with a culture change may be the management, the consultant, or even a dedicated culture lead. Regardless, the resources necessary to execute are at least nominally built into to the position. In a decentralized setting, the advantage of being able to draw internally for PMs comes with the downside that your volunteer class, however motivated and legitimized to execute the plan, may literally not have the resources. Your PM will have to tell the community what they need, and could even have to fundraise. This could include anything from travel costs to help community members meet in person for feedback, or the funds for a bounty or the developer time to implement a new mechanism.

As in the other stages, there is a choice of how much to trust execution to the PM or invite them to devolve execution to the community. You can see how, all else being equal, it is easier and easier to maintain legitimacy without active engagement of the bottom-up elements. The PM has been given their mandate and can credibly claim to centrally represent the community’s decentralized voice as long as they follow a community approved plan toward community developed goals.

That said, there is a strong case to be made for involving the community in execution. Many practitioners we reviewed, after working with a community to develop its goals for its culture, implement those goals by delegating them to teams in the organization. This accomplishes many things at once:

  1. It’s a rational way of dividing a complex task
  2. It gives the largest number of community members the experience that “how the community is” is up to them.
  3. By giving teams well defined tasks their chances of success increase, accelerating the bonding and trustbuilding functions of teamwork.
  4. … and with those tasks grounded in a bigger picture connected directly to the greater purpose of the team, members link their broader mission and micro-level effort in the most experiential way.

Closing/Monitoring/Renewal

Each delta will have it’s own natural close, whether it’s a matter of checking off the boxes for creating and populating a new Discord channel or celebrating with the kickoff for a new system of community participation awards for recognizing contributors who best represent a newly acknowledged value or best serve a new community goal.

Perhaps it’s called for to end with an overall close of the project, or with evaluations and monitors for assessing their effectiveness. In normal project management closing is one step, and monitoring another. Although it makes sense for most project management, these distinctions are a bit less meaningful for culture change. There are a few reasons for this, but overall culture is never done, and part of what makes it strong is the decision to engage with it actively as part of how the community runs.

More narrowly, some changes will either be ineffective, cause new problems, or bring new attention to existing problems that were missed. Catching these improves the community’s ability to learn what works, and recognizing them plants the seeds for the next cycle of intentional culture building. In this sense decentralized orgs that draw internally for their stewards are in a position to plan change more consistently and intentionally than the traditional organization which hires its consultant, checks the “we care about our culture” box, and settles back to nearly the status quo. Making attention to culture part of the system and process of the community is a big investment, but so is your community.

With a permanent steward role iterating through cycles of development and refinement the community is uniquely prepared to respond quickly when outside events—crashes, attacks, rifts, and other drama—intercede, putting a community in the best possible position for these events to ultimately be remembered by the community as moments of growth and shared meaning, rather than regretful turning points and existential threats.

Once again, I’ve used this article to share a personal conclusion from this 5 month study of the art and science of culture building: intentional hopes and dreams for your community requires intentional planning and execution, probably from a single person or group of people who have taken on the mission of leading the process. That may sound worrying, but treating these people as stewards, and selecting them in a way that they have and continue to earn the community’s trust, gives us a way to legitimately call their efforts emergent and bottom-up.

And of course, I’m eager to be wrong. Maybe there’s a decentralized solution. I’m skeptical, but open to this and eager to think it through. To get ahead of my first-line critiques, my answer would be Yes, culture change can be conducted in a decentralized way. In fact it usually is. But intentional, unifying culture change, the kind that represents the work of building shared meaning, requires an active effort of observing, planning, and execution. That initiative will be more authentically bottom-up the more it acknowledges the value of “centralized” stewards who are charged with respecting, accumulating, and representing the decentralized will. I’m super open to criticism here: please change my mind. But for now I think the appropriate approach to culture building requires a non-ideological blend of emergence and authority, in the same way that I think it requires a blend of on- and off-chain dynamics.

Thank you for your ideas and engagement.

Seth Frey (Home , Twitter )

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