(Community Building) Operations 101

Kent Dahlgren
7 min readAug 4, 2020

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One of the biggest reasons why small businesses and intentional communities fail is that people underestimate the difficulty of staffing and operations; they volunteer their way into working two or three full-time jobs, and eventually just burn out.

The following process will require less than an hour of your time, and builds a strategic staffing plan that can be implemented easily and inexpensively.

This also provides the basis for assigning tasks more flexibly, so people actually enjoy what they do, which is great for efficiency and morale.

And just to level-set, this is an approximation of the C.A.L.M. Process we at 214 Alpha walk all customer communities through (technically, part of the “Community Building” phase, which is a key portion of governance).

To start, get some index cards, small post-it notes, and a pen. Spend no more than $7 on materials; let’s make this simple.

As you can see here, I chose to additionally bring bacon, eggs, coffee, and delicious Texas water.

What am I writing down?

On each index card I am documenting the various tasks necessary to run a fictional chicken farm.

This doesn’t have to be comprehensive. Don’t overthink this, and don’t over complicate it.

The important thing is to start at a high-level, and then work into the details, layer by layer.

At a glance you can see what I’m doing: each index card describes a task that must be done each day, and it estimates the amount of time necessary.

I was raised in a family business (spices), and you learn in a hurry that the management of the household requires significant operational discipline. Additionally, the success of the business is contingent upon the success of the home.

So it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about the small business or an intentional community, all of that needs to go down on the index cards.

Don’t worry about being comprehensive; start at a high-level, and focus on the things that come to you as you sit and savor your delicious farm-fresh eggs and bacon.

Let thine freak flag fly, as I like to say.

The next thing you do: add a little Post-it sticky indicating who is currently doing each one of these tasks.

It doesn’t take long to discern a pattern; the 80/20 rule dictates that 80% of your total tasks are probably assigned to 20% of your people.

Again, this is one of the biggest contributors to burn out; people thrust themselves into a gift economy, and years later realize that they have committed to an aggregate workload that is completely unsustainable.

Another consideration: attrition.

People leave, they die, they move on, they lose interest, etc., and tasks that were previously distributed equitably become concentrated among a small number of people who are in over their heads.

Take a look at this:

Trudy is responsible for 214 hours of tasks per day on our fictional chicken farm, and there’s no way that is sustainable.

There are people who can manage massive workloads, but this is a disaster: they get burned out, they become bitter, or maybe they die.

An additional consideration: people who take on far more tasks are common vectors for internal fraud; in their self-created bitterness they start to rationalize the small thefts that gradually become the big ones, and they can do so because only they understand their workload.

My company helps communities with self-governance, and we deliver a platform that’s transparent, accountable, and easy to audit, so there’s a minimal chance of fraud, waste, abuse, or corruption.

Expect us to endeavor to bring these pockets of overwork/unaccountability to light.

Above and beyond all that are considerations regarding morale, and an individual sense of ownership, so need to apply some creativity so we can properly load-balance these tasks, for a lot of reasons, including but not limited to the following:

  • Love (people need to love what they do)
  • Continuity and resiliency
  • Operational efficiency

This is the part of staffing that can be most confounding, if you allow it to, but let’s make it simple, OK?

First step is to select the tasks that can be assigned most easily to somebody else.

This part of the process is wickedly cathartic. Check this out:

We’ve done the following, in less time required for me to eat three eggs and four sticks of bacon:

Now we have a rough outline of what we would expect from a new member of the team.

This is significantly easier than just describing the tasks to new people verbally, and expecting them to just get it.

Any entrepreneur will understand how frustrating this is; new hires aren’t always receptive to following directions, and some become dependent upon piecemeal instructions delivered via text message at 11 PM

I discourage this kind of childlike dependency upon micromanagement from leadership. If people can’t own their tasks, they need to be transitioned out.

Additionally, this learned helplessness is another “tell” of fraud. Keep an eye out!

Back to the exercise, you’ll notice that there is a quantified expectation that this person is occupied with tasks about nine hours a day.

Let’s add another task:

Each new person brought into the organization should be expected to review and update the documentation with the explicit assumption that they will eventually get promoted, they will quit, they will pass away, etc.

Attrition happens, right?

This is actually a really good way to see if you can rally the “learned helpless” to take responsibility for their job. If they cannot, they need to be let go. Chances are they were just texting all day, anyway. No big loss.

Speaking of which, I just finished my breakfast!

See how easy that was?

Of course this exercise will be a little bit more complex for your community or your business, but you can probably discern that tasks can be assembled in such a way that they help frame out a job that might be enjoyable to a certain person.

For example, maybe there are a variety of clerical or operational tasks that might be assembled in such a way that allows a person to focus on a lot of technology and communications.

Likewise, maybe there’s a few tasks that would be a better fit for someone who enjoys a lot of time outdoors, engage in physical activities.

One thing I would note: once these tasks are assembled into a job description, they end up taking on a life of their own.

Let’s go back to the issue of attrition, and operational continuity.

Let’s assume that you hire someone named Ishmael, and maybe he enjoys taking care of the chickens, preparing meals, and handling the inbound and outbound social media communications.

If you think about it, that’s a pretty weird job, but maybe Ishmael digs it, who knows?

Anyway, let’s say that Ishmael departs, and you need to hire someone new.

Are you going to pull your hair out trying to find the one other person on the planet that enjoys taking care of chickens, preparing meals, and managing social media communications?

I would recommend you decompose the job back down to tasks, and be flexible and pragmatic as you seek a replacement for Ishmael.

It’s probable that Ishmael‘s replacement may prefer to work with the chickens, and stay outdoors, maintaining the farm equipment. This new person probably doesn’t want to sit down and handle social media communications; that job might be better handled by someone else.

The point is: if you focus on the discrete tasks, rather than the rigid job descriptions, and you really think about what people enjoy doing, you can flexibly assign tasks in such a way that taps into the things that people enjoy doing, which is fantastic for morale.

And as mentioned previously, there are those who tend to become “empire builders,” taking on jobs nobody else wants, and eventually having their fingers in everything, but from a position of great and untouchable opacity.

You need to pick those empires apart, because this is the strongest “tell” of internal fraud; people over-commit, and from a place of rationalized resentment, begin their theft of the organization.

This task of “outlining tasks” requires just a few minutes a day, and does not require fancy or expensive tools for on-line collaboration.

There’s no time like the present to get started!

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Kent Dahlgren

Product management fix-it guy. World-famous people skills. Extremely small hands. (edit) marketing lady says I’m also supposed to say “CEO of software company”