Building that community is not something you can force.  No matter how hard we try to speed the process up or do all the right things to “make it happen”, community is built organically. 

Alex Hillman recently posted on this topic and and compared growing community inside a coworking space to growing a flower (http://alexhillman.com/theres-never-only-one-community).  Beyond the simple elegance of this comparison lies some substantial truths. 

As a coworking space owner, I can choose to plant seeds throughout everything I do.  The are also many things I can do to fertilize, weed, water, and tend the garden, but the growth is determined by the way the seed responds to all of these inputs. If the seed isn’t growing as quickly as I like there is little I can do but wait while making sure these basics inputs are present.  Adding too much of them can be just as harmful as not enough.  Messing with nature and its timeline can also lead to plants that have shallow root systems which are unable to make it the long haul, or others that produce leaves but no fruit.

Consider this parable.

Two brothers lived in the country on their father’s farm.  When their father grew ill before planting season, they became panicked, as he had always done all the planning for the farm.  Short on both money and experience, both boys put out a call to their neighbors to help them by bringing them any excess seeds they may have so that they could plant them in their fields.

The community had pity on the boys and local families sent their youngest sons to deliver their assistance (as the older we in the fields). Gifts came in the handfuls and bagfuls, but without any forethought to what the boys would do with all the seed they had the villagers place them all into a large basin at the gate of their farm.

Upon inspecting the seeds that had come in, the boys became very distressed.  The basin had been filled to the brim with seeds of all kinds, shapes, sizes, and colors.  The brothers had no idea what was what.  Feeling overwhelmed, they agreed to retire for the night and meet in the morning to determine what to do next.

When morning came the brothers met over breakfast on what they should do about the seeds.

“All is lost,” said the older brother, “and father will be so disappointed in us for not bringing in a crop.”

“How can we plant a crop that we can’t even identify?” Exclaimed the younger brother, “What a mess!”

“We must do something,” said the older brother, “so I have a plan.  You take half the seed and plant it in the lower forty and I’ll take half and plant it in the upper 40. By planting two crops using different means at least one of us should yield results.”

“Great idea, brother.” said the younger brother, “It’s best not to put all our eggs in one basket.”

So each brother set out to plant their crop.  The older brother spent his first few days sorting all the seeds by shape, size, and color so everything of the same kind would be together.  Upon completing the sorting, he began planting, but anxious for results he planted 4 seeds per hole.

“At least one will grow, and if multiples spring up they’ll take the place of any that wither away.  And at the worst, at least all of the same plants will be together.”

The younger brother got right to work.  He spent no time sorting the seeds, but chose to spend his first few days tilling the soil, adding fertilizer, and removing and stones from the plot.  He then reached into his sack of seeds, grabbed a handful of seeds, and spread them far and wide over the plot.  There was no rhyme or reason to where the seeds fell, and guided only by the wind and the lay of the land, they found their final resting place without any direction from the younger brother.

At the end of their long day both brothers had completed their plots. When they compared notes on how each planted their crops, the older brother was aghast.

“How could you not have shown more care in planting your seeds?  What will we do if they do not bring a harvest?

“The risk is the same between both plots, and who am I to decide where a seed will grow best.  Why not let the seed and the ground decide it for themselves?”

Many days passed and the brothers kept watch on their fields.  No sign of any growth could be found in either field.

Each day the younger brother went out into the field and tended to the ground, removing stones that worked their way to the surface, removing weeds that were creeping in, and lightly irrigating the plot to keep the soil moist.

His older brother became more and more panicked with each passing day and his plot showed the signs.  Some days he would dig up seeds to see if they were growing, moving them to another areas of the garden or removing the ones he felt may not have growing potential.  This process often damaged the young root systems of the plants, and their growth was retarded, and sometimes, ceased entirely.

Other days he would become anxious that soil was just not fertile enough, so he would spend hours spreading fertilizer in big piles around the plot.  Some of the seeds responded with quick growth, shooting up out of the ground only to be withered by the sun because their roots had not had time to fully develop and feed the plant with the water it needed to survive.  Other plants were burned up by the chemicals, suffering from too much of a good thing meted out all at once.

And if that were not enough, the older brother also watered his seeds 4 times a day, feeling that if a little was good, a lot must be better.  Many plants suffered under the stress of the overwatering, some drowning in the puddles left behind.

But as the older brother got more and more panicked, and tinkered more and more with his plot, the younger brother continued to go out into the field and tend to the ground, removing stones that worked their way to the surface, removing weeds that were creeping in, and lightly irrigating the plot to keep the soil moist.  As seeds began to spout from the ground he took note of their individual characteristics so he wouldn’t miscategorize them as weeds.

After a few months of this process the villagers surrounding the farm began to gather and talk about what they were witnessing there.  All agreed that both plots were like nothing they had ever seen before.

The younger brother’s plot looked like a hodge-podge of various plants, all intermingled and of different heights and varieties.  The plants looked healthy, but in some areas plants were thriving and growing tall while others lay in their shadows.  The younger brother had decided to let nature take its course, allowing the plants best suited for the plot to flourish while others may be crowded out and die.  He felt any other solutions would invariably impact both plants negatively because they were so intertwined.

The older brother’s plot was also in disarray.  The crop, although planted in sections, was extremely spotty.  Some areas looked good while others showed wide splotches of distress, or in some cases, bare ground.  His habitual tinkering and meddling into the growth of the plot had caused many plants to die, and too much water and fertilizer had taken its toll on entire rows of crops.

As harvest time approached, both brothers began to think about the arduous task of collecting their crops.  The older brother chose to use the equipment they had on hand to combine the crops, but quickly realized that due to the various heights, types, and growing seasons of his crops, much of his harvest would be lost during the process that required much more uniformity and consistency.

After a long period of thought, the younger brother decided to harvest his crop by hand, picking the grain from each plant one by one to minimize loss.  Although the process would be very time consuming, it would actually be more efficient, as each plant could be targeted individually and those whose grain was not quite ready could be harvested in later rounds.

When the process was complete, both brothers returned to their father’s house with their harvest.  The older brother was able to provide a modest amount of grain of varying quality to the storehouses, but most of it was of only a couple varieties, as their harvest equipment wasn’t well-suited for the other types of grain.

The younger brother’s harvest was much larger, but no single grain made up the majority.  There were equal amounts of each of the plants that went into the storehouse, and the quality of this grain was higher and much more consistent.

When the father was well enough to examine the results of the season he asked each of the brothers what they had learned from their experience.  When they had spoken he wrote their wisdom down and posted it on the wall of the barn.  This is what it said:

  • When asking for assistance, also ask for wisdom.  Knowing something doesn’t mean you understand it.
  • Be clear about what you need.
  • Too much of a good thing is still too much, and some good things aren’t needed at all; provide what is needed.
  • Look for signs of stress and understand when that is self-inflicted.
  • If you spend more time planning and organizing than you do preparing the field for planting, your focus is on the plan, not the crop.
  • Be patient; some seeds just need more time than others.
  • When you sow by hand you may need to harvest accordingly.  See the qualities and yield of each plant as unique and harvest when ready.
  • A “one-size-fits-all” approach only works if it fits all sizes.  More times than naught you need to particularize.
  • Some plants aren’t suited for your ground and will never get established.  You can change the makeup of your ground to better suit them, but that may also kill off other plants that have already gotten established.  Understand this is a fact of life; don’t try to be all things to everyone.

This post was originally written on October 31, 2012, and posted to Hackpad in conjunction with Alex Hillman’s awesome work on coworking.  It’s been reposted here to consolidate my writing.  Enjoy!