Turbocharged Community Building

Hypothesis: The single most powerful tool for rapidly building strong communities is collectively and collaboratively working together to complete meaningful projects with urgent deadlines, limited planning, and under challenging conditions.

There are endless ways to build communities. Most of which take a long time. But what if there was one tool capable of achieving decades worth of traditional community building in the matter of a few days or even hours?

Communities have worked together on projects for centuries. But I believe there are certain types of projects that create stronger communal ties than others. There are five elements of my hypothesis.

1. Collective/Collaborative Effort – We engage in projects all the time where strong leaders are at the helm. They engage in a command and control approach to finishing their projects that as a society we’ve grown to respect and replicate. But to powerfully strengthen a community, projects must allow community members to collaboratively plan and create, not just be bossed around on how to move dirt and lay bricks.

2. Limited Planning – When there is room for excessive planning, projects almost inevitably fall prey to the same command and control leadership that stymies collaboration. Ingenuity and creativity only tend to come out and strut their stuff when truly needed. If each step of a project was laid out with predetermined outcomes, they wouldn’t be needed and would remain dormant. The project will likely be completed, but a community probably won’t be built.

3. Challenging Conditions – Completing outdoor projects in zero degree weather with howling wind somehow tends to create stronger communities than projects completed on sandy beaches in 81 degree weather. Likewise, projects that involve participants who clearly lack the expertise needed to easily complete the project, create stronger communities than those where the participants are seasoned pros at dealing with the challenge at hand. Pros don’t need to lean on each other and innovate. For optimal community building, tools need to be repurposed, skill sets need to be applied outside of ordinary contexts, and participants need to be stretched.

4. Urgent Deadlines – This one is simple. Without an urgent deadline, people could just work on the project when they had time. There would be no reason for everyone to come together and engage in the difficult and supremely rewarding work of collaborating to complete meaningful projects. We’re human, we’ll never just get around to building a community a someday.

5. Meaningful Purpose – Perhaps the most important element of a community building project is that the project have a truly meaningful purpose. One could easily schedule a project consisting of only the other four elements and walk away with no more of a community than they started with. Without a truly meaningful purpose, such a project would quickly be exposed for the shallow kumbaya team building exercise it really was. The project’s purpose must be greater than community building itself. When a project is linked to a meaningful purpose, communities will self-generate and overcome unimaginable obstacles.


On January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 took off from New York’s La Guardia airport.  Three minutes after takeoff, it struck a flock of Canada Geese and lost all thrust to both engines. The pilot quickly but calmly took emergency measures to try and safely land the plane. When it became clear they would be unable to reach any local runways without risking tragic devastation to densely populated neighborhoods, they chose to make an emergency landing on the Hudson River. Less than 6 minutes after take off, their plane was floating safely down the Hudson River. All 155 passengers were safe. In a reunion of passengers and crew members a few months later, tears were shed and hugs were shared. The heroic captain of that flight, Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger, said at that reunion, “We will be joined forever because of the event of January 15th in our minds and our hearts.” Captain Sullenberger and his first officer Jeffrey Skiles were the ones who landed the plane, but there were also flight attendants comforting passengers and passengers helping one another exit the plane. In less than 6 minutes, a dynamic and powerful community, that will likely last for decades, was created.

But this type of turbocharged community building isn’t restricted to intense tragedies. I personally experienced this kind of almost miraculous community building a few months ago when I participated in my first Tri-Conf. Tri-Conf was my first exposure to an unconference—a “barcamp” style of conference where there are no distinctions between “speakers” and “attendees.” Participants proposed the talks they were interested in and then selected which sessions they wanted to attend. I proposed a few sessions and delivered two. Due to other obligations, I was only able to attend for half of the last day. But after just five hours of listening and sharing, I felt a completely unexpected powerful connection with the people in that group. As I drove back to Walla Walla, I marveled at what had just happened. I knew then as I know now, that I was now a warmly welcomed member of a new community! It was amazing!

How is it possible that participation in a 5 hour project could produce much stronger communal connection than years of involvement in other meaningful communities? Was it just an accident? Could or should this be replicated? What if others were challenged to help build a strong, enduring community in less than 24 hours? What would they do?

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Keith Nerdin

I'm just a Hobo Entrepreneur.

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