Biggest Mistakes Communities Make

I’ve been involved with, starting, and leading various communities (real-world and online) for decades a lot longer than I care to admit to. While communities/groups vary greatly in main focus and topic areas, they all have many similarities; the most common trait they share is their stupid mistakes. Here I’ve assembled my list of the top mistakes communities (and their leaders) seem to make repeatedly; feel free to share your own.


1. Refuse to listen – this is probably the easiest mistake to avoid, yet it seems to be the most common. Somehow many leaders tend to make this blunder frequently as well (although it can be argued that if you don’t know how to listen, then you’re not really a leader at all; just an opinionated blowhard). Sometimes the lack of listening stems from an inability to respect differences of opinion (or others in general), but it can also happen when community input has a poor signal-to-noise ratio. A community is not an isolated voice, so there should be mechanisms in place to manage information properly and filter feedback so that it can be heard. Genuinely productive input (as opposed to complaining or insults) should always be encouraged and acted upon, even if that action is just telling the community why something can’t be done. The model should be to reward constructive comments – positive reinforcement – rather than constantly directing the energy at the squeaky wheels.


2. Lack ability to delegate – the beautiful thing about a community is its diversity, yet sometimes communities forget to take advantage of that fact & find all of the different talents, skills, and abilities within their ranks. While the group hive-mind is the glue that forms the community, each of its members are also distinct individuals with distinct abilities who should be encouraged to utilize those talents for the group. Community leaders need to be brutally honest with themselves and their communities about where their weaknesses are and what they need help with – and let the community members assist them. This outreach should involve everyone, not just the people with obvious skills; you never know who knows someone who knows someone.


3. Not do any research – whatever you’re doing, someone else has an idea that can inspire you, or is doing something you should replicate rather than reinvent. There is always something to learn from others. Forget this at you own peril, and be prepared to waste a lot of time & energy on stuff that gets you nowhere yet keeps you from the important stuff. And even worse, after you’ve expended all of that energy, be prepared for someone to point out to you that someone else is already doing that, and/or is doing it better.


4. Lose sight of the goal – why are you in the community to begin with? Everyone should keep in mind their common objective and goal, and not lose sight of it. When it becomes more about power plays and arguments and less about fun, learning, and/or sharing a common bond, what’s the point? I suppose if the community is supposed to be centered upon bickering and one-upsmanship (i.e., politics) then that might be an exception.


5. Don’t prioritize & chunk tasks – a community isn’t built in one day, nor does it evolve in one. Figure out what the objectives are (growth, awareness, sales, connections, networking, camaraderie, team building, etc.) and come up with short, mid, and long-range goals to meet those objectives. Part of delegation is chunking activities to ensure that the priority tasks are divided by timeframes as well as by importance. Make sure the entire community is aware of the mid and long-term plans too, so that they don’t keep wasting time complaining or (re-)developing agendas versus focusing on where their attention is best directed right now. Having priorities gives people momentum and something to work towards so that Things Get Done. And never have a meeting of any kind without an agenda.


6. Not getting passionate members on board – I’ve seen several companies outsource the hiring of their community managers and other key forward-facing positions, leaving the process to the whims of keyword-scanning software and people who can’t differentiate someone throwing around buzzwords from someone who really knows their stuff and – better still – who cares. Communities are not all the same, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to hiring champions for your industry; what may create success in one community will be disastrous in another. Try to reach out to the community first to find talent from within; sometimes a person’s resumé may not be the best indication of what they can do (because their hobbies and extracurricular activities may not be covered), so ask specific, targeted questions about their skills instead of asking for resumés.


7. Output to social media w/no mechanism for input – this somewhat ties in with ‘refuse to listen,’ but more specifically you can’t just push information and expect to grow a community around that. One-way communication is appropriate at times – news and press releases are fine candidates for RSS feeds – but other tools like Twitter, facebook, FriendFeed, etc. are meant for dialogs, so that you receive information as well as distribute it. There is no one right or wrong way to use any tools (no matter what anyone tries to tell you or sell you), but there’s little point in using a tool if you’re going to treat it just like an RSS feed. Figure out a way to take advantage of every tool that you use (and its unique capabilities).


8. Not acknowledge or alienate the sub-groups – Every community has its central theme; a specific type of interest or common bond, but within that big-picture umbrella lies various components. You might think of ‘geeks’ as a community, for example, but in reality there are so many different types of geeks that one lump-sum category doesn’t fit them all. Broad communities cannot work without acknowledging, embracing, and utilizing their sub-components. If a group’s focus is too broad, there will be too much disagreement to be functional. Each sub-group should have a voice and distinction within the larger community, so that the community is united rather than fractioned. That doesn’t mean that every sub-group has to get along with the others or agree with the rest (that’s probably not possible); it just means don’t forget #4. Dissenting members should be encouraged to develop a new group, perhaps as a sub-group, so that they have a place where their differences can be embraced, not belittled. Mutiny indicates a need to evaluate the group; look at its root cause to see if changes could be made to improve the situation, or if a new sub-group is the best solution.


9. Trying to be too democratic or too inflexible – leadership by committee only works when there are clearly identified processes and procedures, and when each committee member is focused on a unique area of expertise that is respected by the rest of the community. This almost never happens. Similarly, trying to rule with an iron fist will prove to be just as unsuccessful, unless your community is focused on tirelessly debating ‘who died and made you God.’ A respected dictatorship – where leaders are chosen by the high-ranked community members (voting globally rarely works, as a more popular person may not ultimately be the most qualified skills-wise), where input is valued and encouraged by leadership but ultimately they make the final decisions, where everyone has concrete tasks that map to the group’s goals – is the best approach. Communities should only vote on matters where the vote would have an impact and be carried out (i.e., if the group can’t change a meeting time, there’s no point in voting on a different meeting time).


10. Letting the vocal bullies lead – bossing people around is one of the surest ways to alienate them as a community. There will always be some people within the community that really enjoy the sound of their own voice and are oblivious as to how disrespectful it is to everyone else’s time for them to talk endlessly about pointless minutia or their personal agenda. These people will be dismissive to others, will be patronizing – anything to remain vocal so that they can seem to be in charge and get attention. The fact is, the ‘take charge’ members are usually not the best leaders; they’re usually bulls smashing everything to get their way, and lack the diplomacy, vision, and tact required to truly be effective as a leader. These people will either use a lot of ‘we’ language (‘we all feel this way’ – when they haven’t really asked nor listened to anyone else) or try to make every idea seem like their own (‘I decided to reformat the newsletter’). But ultimately, their goal – no matter how they phrase it – is to get what they want and be seen as the (solo) hero, not to compromise for the community or, horror, incorporate the ideas of others (bullies often see this as ‘generosity,’ as if letting the lesser mortals and the community at large have their needs met is a sacrifice). The best way to combat this is to ensure that they’re always questioned on how their input specifically maps to the needs and objectives of the community. Always have those clearly defined. At that point, it’ll be easier to steer them towards focusing on what’s best for the group, not just what’s convenient for them. If they still can’t work as part of the solution, then they’re part of the problem, and ultimately will be less obstructive if given a sub-task (away from people) to direct their energies on. (The distinction between mutiny instigators and the bully is that one is a chronic complainer who gripes more than they take action, while the bully will step on everyone’s toes taking action without anyone wanting them to and without being asked, thinking that it ‘shows initiative’ rather than impulsiveness and a lack of consideration). Having some sort of recognition program in place (rewarding milestones and assigned contributions, not rogue behavior) is also a good idea, so that people who crave attention can get a pat on the back without needing to act out.


11. Thinking people will create a community around a crap product/service – it all really comes down to how good your community’s ‘thing’ is; it’s harder to rally around a crappy idea or product than it is to put up with community shortcomings for a great cause. The more time you spend improving the genre/idea/product/focus of the group, the better the community will be as as result. The more enthused people are, the more dynamic and interesting the community can be as a result – if it’s allowed to be. Organic, genuine communities thrive more than attempts at contrived ones. Always allow some latitude for letting your group grow naturally; the focus should always be on quality, not quantity. If you build it, they will – well, you get the idea.