A guide to community flywheels

A guide to community flywheels

This is your one-stop guide to everything you need to know about community flywheels.

This is your one-stop guide to everything you need to know about community flywheels.

Introducing Community Flywheels

Go build a community. Sure, but how?

Go create traction. Sure, but how?

Go grow a community. Sure, but how?

As community builders we are expected to just go do these things, yet we struggle to know the how – the thought process behind growing a community. We lack practical mental models, metaphors and frameworks on how to think about building community. And more specifically, how to grow one.

This is where community flywheels come into action.

A community flywheel is where you design, create, action and modify community activities that lead to natural momentum.

Communities work well when:

  • we understand the direction we are heading (aka 'the vision')
  • there is natural momentum through the connection of people and ideas
  • it compounds because it is repeatable
  • approach it like a jigsaw puzzle, each piece support another
  • we seek to listen and work with our people
  • we seek feedback and improvements and understand what and why it works

Your community idea is meaningless without a flywheel

Just like an idea in business is pretty meaningless without action, so is a community. Our communities are nothing without action. To create them into something special we need to figure out the action we need to take.

I know we all love and care for our communities or the idea of what our community could be. It's good to care. Communities need the care and lots and lots of love.

But dare I say that love requires work? Not random ideas to see what sticks, but intentional action with desired and aligned outcomes. The results come with deep community work.

I often try to explain this randomness as the 'Community Funnel of Hope'. It's where we throw stuff in and cross our fingers in hope that something works. It's not that doing a bunch of things and trying out new things is wrong. I definitely encourage experimentation.

However, experimentation with intention of building the community flywheel is key. We will fail to find growth unless we are building upon learning from previous work.

The experimentation mindset with a process and understanding of each piece is what will build the community flywheel. It's about tuning in to what is working, what is creating goodness and doing more of that!

A birds-eye view of community flywheels

I currently see a community flywheel to have 4 basic parts:

  • what you have — we all have access to something, what you have grows over time.
  • community activities — the things you do in a community.
  • containers — generally speaking a combination of community activities.
  • evaluation — reviewing your work, did it go according to plan? Why or why not.

Start with what you have

When we're starting out we often feel like we have nothing to base our efforts on. We must get out of this mindset, we always have something. There is abundance everywhere and to be honest, we are so spoilt with the internet.

There are no excuses, you can start with what you have. If you feel you have nothing you can start with something like this:

  • access to the internet
  • attend an event or community (they are everywhere)
  • connect with one person from the event or community
  • follow and converse with them
  • repeat, repeat, repeat
  • help someone out
  • repeat, repeat, repeat

This might not be a flywheel yet, but it's foundational conversation, relationship and research activity that every community builder needs to get comfortable with.

The more you build community, the bigger the 'what you have' will become. Don't be put off by the smallness. There is always value in small scale and deeper conversations that bigger communities or companies are just unable to have.

The foundation building blocks of community flywheels are MVCs

Communities don't just appear or get big out of nowhere, they emerge, they grow, bit by bit. One experiment and community flywheel adjustment at a time.

To create your flywheel you need foundation building blocks. I refer to these building blocks as Minimum Viable Communities (MVCs) — the smallest thing you can do to create or add to your community.

A simple way to look at MVCs is by viewing them as an intentionally designed collection of community activities. For example, to create an event as an MVC, a member might have needed to sign up to an email list, register and then show up to the event. That's at least 3 community activities. Often more activities might happen as a result — they may contribute to the conversations that may be happening, virtually or not.

To get a community flywheel spinning you'll likely need to experiment with a bunch of MVCs. In theory, you can always be MVC'ing — as in you can always create a contained community experiment to see how it impacts your community. Also, in reality, a community flywheel likely consists of multiple MVCs.

MVCs should be aligned and intentional with where you want the community to head. It's not just about doing things to get attention and fake growth. MVCs help you take step towards the community and relationships you want to build. They help you learn about what is needed. You, therefore, need to go in with an open mind to seek the abundance of opportunities.

Therefore, when you're thinking about how to grow your community useful questions to ask could be:

  • what's the smallest thing we can do now?
  • what would be helpful now?
  • what is a priority?
  • what will bring the most impact?
  • what can we build upon?
  • what hasn't been tried yet?
  • what do people keep asking for?
  • what would happen if we don't do this?
  • how will this help us get closer to where we want to be?

Add, adjust and remove

In communities, you need to keep adapting through adding, adjusting and removing from your flywheel. A MVC mindset is crucial for this — it's all about starting small, just like communities need to start small — to then build upon it.

What might you seek to add?

  • newsletters
  • a summary
  • a call to action
  • education + content
  • ideas
  • curation
  • gather ideas and people via hashtags
  • events
  • resources
  • podcasts + videos + interviews
  • collaborations or co-creating
  • conversations + discussions
  • people + relationships
  • community challenges

What might you adjust?

  • the community experience and journey
  • the community activities within the container
  • the things that worked well or have potential
  • the onboarding
  • the opt-ins
  • the content
  • the themes
  • the people you invite
  • the frequency

What might you remove?

  • bloat or anything that adds to community debt
  • inactive members
  • content and data
  • anything that people don't seem to be interested in

Note: these lists are a guide and are not comprehensive, I encourage you to explore the possibilities.

Here is an example of getting a flywheel going with an MVC, with a 'parenting by Rosie' community in mind —

In time I might discover that Twitter Spaces aren't ideal so I might remove them and replace them with a Twitter Community.

Or I might add a summary of the Twitter Space onto the 'parenting' website as a blog post and share it amongst the people who attended.

I might also adjust some of the tweets I put out to include some highlights from the Twitter Space.

These are simple examples of how to apply adding, adjusting and removing.

Every piece of the community flywheel matters

When you build up a flywheel bit by bit you can pay close attention to all the moving parts. By adding, adjusting and removing parts of it you will then be able to develop a deep understanding of what works, or doesn't.

You'll start to learn that when you remove something it may cause the whole flywheel to lose traction.


You could adjust things, perhaps by adjusting or removing content, or getting creative with opt-in subscriptions. Listening and observing the results empowers you to make the best decisions.


If no one is opting into a subscription, or if the opt-in rate is super low, then that piece of the flywheel could probably be removed to simplify the community experience. If you know it's working, you may want to double down on it.


Perhaps your boss may question the need for that weekly community email that takes up so much of your time to put together. They might encourage it to be cut. However, you may know that it is a crucial piece of the community flywheel, that a large majority stay in touch with what is happening in the community through that email. Cutting the weekly email could cause the whole flywheel to collapse.


The point is, you know. You observe. You pay attention. You understand what is important. You know the consequences of actions or inactions.

You know because you've built it one block, or one MVC at a time.

Community flywheels won't work without some clear thinking and strategy around them. I like to divide the flywheel thinking into strategic and tactical.

Strategic Community Flywheels

A good community flywheel strategy keeps the community flywheel going around in line with a vision, boundaries and the required economics.  The strategy will then influence the more tactical community flywheel.

Let's have a look at Strategic Community Flywheels, they consist of:

  • Guiding the vision: having a clear understanding of where your community is heading makes decision making easier
  • Set boundaries: for every MVC you commit to there is clarity in what is it you do or don't do in your community.
  • Economics: ensure alignment exists with how the community plans to stay afloat.

Not sure how this applies in real community life?

Let us have a look at how it applies to Ministry of Testing, a community of practice for software testers that I founded in 2007.

  • Guide the vision: I sought to change and influence the software testing world in a positive, creative, energetic and professional way.
  • Set boundaries: We bring new ideas, we seek to help and raise one another, we are creative, and future thinkers. Our goals is to transform the industry. We don't want to be boring, corporate, or create waste.
  • Economics: Our ethics drive us. Community and value before money, yet we understand that we need to generate money. We reinvest back into the community as much as possible.

The flywheel ends up looking something along these lines, I've simplified to avoid drawing many different flywheel pictures.


Really what this flywheel does is give us clearer guidance on the boundaries of our tactical community flywheels. It helps us keep on track of our vision, understand our boundaries and be mindful of how we need to make money.

Everything in a tactical flywheel should align with the vision of the community, it should be within boundaries that we believe in and should take into consideration our economic engine — the how we make money or are budgeted for in our community.

To create clarity it could be useful to map this out for whoever you work with, or even communicate to the community as a whole.

Strategic flywheels:

  • guide us
  • understand our principles
  • help make high level decisions
  • create an understanding of what we do in community

Whereas tactical flywheels focus on:

  • using strategic flywheels as a guide
  • day to day operations
  • give the flywheel process stability
  • experimental & reactionary
  • seek practical opportunities for improvements

Both are equally important.

Tactical Flywheels

Tactical flywheels are all about the doing. We can easily think that we don't have enough to get our flywheel going, but I believe we can all start with something.

We have to choose to look whilst also ensuring it is aligned with our Strategic Community Flywheels

Starting with what you have might be things like:

  • use the internet creatively
  • your network
  • research
  • a website
  • an email list
  • a reputation

A community activity is what you do in community, for example:

  • conversations
  • give feedback
  • sharing of content
  • sharing of experiences

A container is like a project and usually consists of multiple community activities. For example, you could opt to:

  • host an event, where community activities are signing up to email list, registering, participating in conversations or giving feedback
  • start a Twitter community, where community activities are creating or responding to a tweet
  • start a newsletter, where the community activities could be registering for the newsletter, responding to a request, or signing up to an event

Reviewing the result is paying attention to the outcome:

  • did it work?
  • are you happy doing the work?
  • what went well?
  • what could be done better?
  • was it worth it?
  • are you excited to do it again?

As you're building your tactical community flywheel, think about what can be used to build and improve it.

Here's my running list of sources of where to look for tactical ideas:

(These lists are never comprehensive, use them as inspiration).

Assets

  • what do you have access to? (e.g. a website, an email list)
  • what connections could help? (e.g. your champions, new members)
  • what commitments or promises can you get? (e.g. get an approved budget)
  • can you tap into your or someone else's experience?

Community journey:

  • what could community journeys look like?
  • where do members start?
  • what types of members are there?
  • when do members leave?
  • what do they want to do?

Community activities:

  • what action do you want members to take along their community journey?
  • what don't you want people to do?
  • what gaps exist?
  • do you have a list of preferred community activities?
  • what community activities could you support or enhance right now?  

Feedback:

  • how can you get feedback and improve outcomes?
  • what have people been openly saying?
  • what have they not been saying?
  • where are you storing all the feedback?

Co-creations:

  • how can you help people create together?
  • what's a small co-creation?
  • what would help the community grow?
  • what would help members grow?
  • what would be fun?

Gifts:

  • what sparks have you spotted in your members?
  • what are people happy to give?
  • how can you help people use their sparks to contribute?
  • what assets do you have to help them make best use of their sparks?

Opportunities:

  • what opportunities can you bring to members?
  • what is the transformation they seek to make?
  • what assets do you have access to that will help you create the opportunities?

What worked:

  • Do you know what has been working?
  • How can you be sure it is really working?
  • How can you build upon that?
  • What brought joy or change?

What isn't working?

  • do you know what didn't work?
  • what did you or your community enjoy?
  • what brought stress (instead of joy)?
  • where is community debt building up?
  • what can you remove as a result?

The thing about tactics is that people often don't have the ideas of what to do next. Often they go seeking tactics outside of their community. Getting inspiration is great, but being aware of what you have access to is crucial. The world is abundant, there are things all around you that you can make use of and turn into more.

At the end of the day, community tactics are about bringing and maintaining sustainable growth of your community. That includes nurturing your community as much as it is about cleaning it up.

Who doesn't love a lean community flywheel machine?

An example of a tactical community flywheel

This is an early-stage tactical community flywheel of my days at Ministry of Testing.

I was always researching, conversing, encouraging and sharing ideas.

This 'researching tech trends' can grow pretty easily into other flywheels. And really these merged into one big flywheel, it becomes nearly impossible to separate them as they all interact with each other in some form or another.

Following are some examples of how it ended up growing.

Each flywheel here is very tactical. This is the work on the ground that happens week in and week out. It becomes very process-driven over time, however it is clear to me that all these activities align with the overall strategy and vision of the community.

The evolution of a community flywheel

Communities die when they become irrelevant — this is when they are out of touch with the needs and culture of the community. A flywheel that doesn't adapt or evolve will die (an often slow) death. To avoid that there should be the mindset of always evolving.

I wrote earlier about adding, adjusting and removing within the flywheel. These definitely support evolution, but perhaps those are the tactical parts of evolution and sometimes we should think about it from a more strategic perspective.

To avoid becoming irrelevant and encourage evolution, we should think about:

  • how communities don't have an endpoint: they just keep plodding along and evolving as community needs are assessed
  • how we should never stop exploring, experimenting, extending and renewing: we can easily get complacent and feel like we've achieved success, but the reality is we should never lose our energy to seek becoming our best community selves.
  • confront the facts: often we plod along thinking that everything is ok when it is not, we should all learn to be more honest with ourselves. Is what we are doing really adding value?
  • stopping or closing part of the community down is ok: choosing not to continue with part of the community or a project is not a failure. We should learn to let go and really focus on what brings value.
  • how failing to innovate and re-energize will slow the flywheel down: this is a huge risk for communities and perhaps one of the biggest reasons for the downfall of communities.
  • not recognizing existential threats, such as changing trends: the world changes really fast, we cannot ignore the changes we face. Community leaders must feel energised to stay fresh and always be seeking to improve.

Community Flywheel Resources

I leave you with (community) flywheel resources that I've written, found and been inspired by over the past couple of years.


✌️ That's all for now. It's a bit of an epic post, I hope you've found it useful.

💭 Let me know your thoughts, feedback or questions in the comments below.

Community Flywheels © 2020 by Rosie Sherry is licensed under CC BY 4.0

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