Author: Justin Long
My main focus is on “swarms”: decentralized networks of all volunteers. This month, the Lausanne Global Conversation is writing about “partnerships.” You might think there would be a natural convergence between the two topics. After all, isn’t a “swarm” a “partnership” between people? Are partnerships swarmish? Can swarms form partnerships with other organizations?
In my experience, a swarm is not typically a partnership per se. Partnerships came to life as business entities in which co-owners each shared in the profit or loss of a business. In the mission world, we think of partnerships as formalized and even perhaps contractual relationships between two organizations.
Is it possible for swarms to enter into partnerships? Yes, but with caveats. Swarms emphasize vision first, followed by community. Swarms are spontaneously created by people who share the same dreams, ideals, and ways of working, and who find they like to hang out together. Thus swarms have immense staying power–but they are highly informal. It is no mistake that “collaboration” is the third emphasis of a swarm, not the first or second.
When two swarms form a partnership together, the relationship is probably going to be highly informal: perhaps a one page document identifying shared vision and a few areas around which the two can collaborate. There will rarely be hard and fast expectations on an ongoing basis. A partnership might come together with a specific deliverable: say, a combined event. But it will be pretty fluid.
When a swarm tries to form a partnership with a hierarchical organization, however, the relationship is going to be trickier. One of the things hierarchical orgs often excel in is getting specific things done. Swarms, on the other hand, excel in community and endurance over time. Hierarchical organizations will expect specific timelines, deliverables, goals, etc. Often swarms have to reduce big tasks into smaller pieces because, with less formality, there is less desire to work and more desire to hang out. Getting a swarm to discipline itself to execute is a big challenge: apathy is the no. 1 killer of a swarm over time. Smaller pieces are more likely to get done than big projects, and can help build momentum.
Swarms can reach for a higher bar of execution by (1) making behaviors easier to understand (“simple”), easier to communicate (“sticky”), and low-cost to implement; and (2) advocating through influence for the discipline of execution. They might not make as big an immediate splash as an organization with resources, but with a swarm’s enormous staying power and potential to grow into large numbers, it can be quite effective over the long haul.
When dealing with an organization, a swarm needs to know that the organization is most probably looking for a relationship that is more formalized, with specific goals and timelines. The swarm’s leadership will need to anticipate and respond to this need without compromising the swarm’s own internal operating methods, cultures, and capacities. If it can’t, then it’s best not to enter into a partnership.
Organizations, on the other hand, need to understand how a specific swarm works, and what can reasonably be expected and what can’t. Look for places where resources can be shared, relational introductions can be made, and specific projects can be undertaken for specific dates. Each side should play to its strengths in a complementary relationship without expecting either side to become like the other.
One very good example of this is the relationship between Campus Crusade’s JESUS Film project and the many teams who use the JESUS Film. Campus Crusade itself is my best example of a hierarchical organization: strongly centralized, rigidly accountable. (I have many friends in CCCI, and I think it’s a great org–but I don’t think I could ever be part of it, because of the way it’s structured.) On the other hand, the JESUS Film teams often act very swarmishly. The relationship between the two sides is a classic example of the relationship between two very different kinds of organizations.
Another good example can be found in the relationships of a national political campaign to the networks of volunteers on the ground. Campaigns establish specific goals for their volunteers. They know that some will reach them, and some won’t. They can’t force the volunteers, because they are … volunteers. So they have different levels of achievement which they reward as incentives rather than try to hire/fire based on requirements.
One of the best ways to uncover potential partnerships is to look for organizations that first share your vision. Of those, find groups that have similar goals or plausible promises. Finally, narrow the list down to those who have similar organizational emphases. The list will get far more narrow with each “cut” – but in the end you’ll have a list of viable partners who need little persuasion to partner together with you, and with whom you’ll mix quite well. And if no one makes the cut then either consider loosening your requirements just a little, or find someone who shares your vision and empower them to start a swarm you can partner with!
Originally posted at http://www.justinlong.org