A letter came in the mail the other day that I’ll be granted tenure in August… and so it goes.

Looking back on the last and first five years at WSU there are a lot of lessons learned.

One of the most important being how to build a supporting, thriving community. I remember my old boss Dave Bahr asking me, “So what are you really trying to do?” My immediate response: “build a community.” I naively told my friend P.K. that it would take 3 years to build community, he laughed and said “eight.” In short, I had no idea what it took to build community, I just knew I needed one, and we’re only now barely there. It’s easy to recognize a community when your in one. Much, much harder to build one from nothing. So here’s some tips to expedite the process for you.

The number one rule? Repeat after me: “I will not be the bottleneck.” “I will not be the bottleneck.” “I will not be the bottleneck.”

Now accept the fact that you’re the bottleneck to achieving community. Admitting you have a problem is…  🙂

Why are you the bottleneck? It’s a natural (potentially explicit) outcome of the system drivers in academia. Here’s a graphic showing human-organization system flows through history:

Academia is traditionally known as an authoritarian-legalistic bureaucracy/hierarchy (diagrams C & D). Where is the bottleneck in diagrams C & D? You got it! Good luck trying to get away from it too! The entire academia reward system, from the national academies all the way down to local news articles, is geared toward individuals, not communal labs or teams (take a moment and try to find a university award intended for a lab or team).

Enter one of my favorite quotes: “In a free society, you get what you celebrate.” ~ Dean Kamen (the inventor of the Segway, yes he’s a mechanical engineer!)

This is one of the reasons that academia attracts legalistic-authoritarian, power-hungry individuals. Deep down, they want to be a bottleneck! The final constriction through which something good flowed. The problem is, authoritarian bottlenecks are two or more levels removed from the communitarian meme (Diagram F) and potentially (fundamentally) incompatible. What’s more, today’s students grew up with the internet and self-formed instant messaging communities (Diagram H) and function naturally in teams via intramural sports and clubs. No wonder we’re getting more and more out of touch with the students. Can you see bottlenecks in Diagrams F & H?

Sure, great, you build a lab, like I did, with the best students in the college, with unique and difficult research challenges. You’ll naturally get community right? Nope. Not even close. Remember that nearly all of the system drivers don’t promote community. People would still come to me and say, “What do you want me to do? I’ll do whatever you want.”

Building community was much, much harder than I anticipated and involved scaffolding of many more elements than I was even aware of. Here’s a snapshot:

  1. Shared community values posted in the common areas. The WSU Carson College of Business is excellent at this. As P.K. put it, “you became a community because you cared enough to become one.”
  2. A critical number of diverse, community minded individuals working together on a task (3-5 at any given time).
  3. Space that supports community and promotes aggregation of the 3-5 individuals at any given time (space for work, collaboration, play, and focus, here’s a write-up on communal spaces).
  4. A community-minded, high-performance communication medium NOT E-MAIL (Slack with the Trello integration has been a game-changer). Go ahead and try to not be a bottleneck with a team on an e-mail chain.
  5. Promote self-service. For example, instead of office-hours, use message boards. Every question gets asked and answered only once and anybody can answer.
  6. Allow your students and graduate students to self-select. Trust me, lab members don’t want a dud anymore than you do, they’ll have to work with them more, and often know totally different sides of people than you.
  7. Value non-research, self-organized activities in the lab (see play above). Like lab posters, kick-backs, weekly lunches, etc.
  8. Share everything you can. The more you give away in communities, the more you get back. (case in point, this website)
  9. Celebrate excellent individuals and teams within your community doing good work that builds momentum, even if it isn’t directly aligned with what you originally had in mind. In a free society, you get…

My friend P.K., who taught me a lot about communities once said, “I’m worried that if I left, my community wouldn’t make it.” To which I responded, “Because it’s not the same community.”

Remember, communities are self-formed and evolutionary. The system drivers will try to label YOU as the catalyst behind all of this. Repeat after me the old adage, “To build a community, it takes…”