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I wanted to reflect on my first year as a full-time community builder at EA Switzerland. The lessons I share here might be more useful for people who are more or less involved in community building or field building / coordination, but I think some of them are not only work-useful but also life-useful (at least to me). I don't think they are specific to the Swiss context either.

So here is a pile of things I (re)learned:

On People:

1. Sometimes unstructured conversations are the most productive conversations.

I tend to prepare meetings and think about the best ways to make the conversation time as useful as possible. Most of the time, it is also what's expected of me, especially when the person I'm meeting with is very busy and their time is more valuable than mine. And I might project that need for time optimization for all my meetings.

This involves a lot of guesswork and anticipation about what the person can bring me or what I can bring the person. But I've been regularly surprised at how much I learn (or teach!), when the whole extent of the conversation doesn't follow a set agenda. Sometimes the best agenda is going with the flow. I've explored topics and ideas that I would never have thought I would have discussed with my conversation partner if I didn't step out of my comfort zone and stop pushing the conversation in the direction I prepared.

2. It's crazy how low the bar can be for people to feel empowered.

Sometimes I just need to tell someone "Have you thought about [insert something that often can be a little obvious]?" and that's enough for them to take the leap. I've been on the other side of that story, and it's been transformative for me. It literally took my 80,000 Hours advisor to tell me that above sentence with "working in biosecurity" and I jumped in the rabbit hole to explore this (thank you very much, if you're reading me!).

Sometimes it's just about reaching out, being accessible, and sending a timely nudge. I've also been on the other side of that one, and that's what brought me to attend my first EAG (many thanks to you too, if you're also reading me).

There are many shapes this can take, and the ones that I love to use the most (because I get to see the warmth it brings to people) are something like:

  • I really like what you're working on, let's talk about it more during a meeting.
  • I really like your energy, let's have a meeting about how I can help you in your journey.
  • *Looking genuinely excited about something they just told you*
  • You've been excited about [that cool project / job opportunity / etc.], what keeps you from doing it / applying / etc.?

Crazy, huh? and easy, wouldn't you say? I want to do it more, and better (of course, I think it's only useful if one is authentic about it).

[EDIT] Someone mentioned this as "hero licensing". I like that framing.

On Teams:

3. Dedicated recurring feedback sessions make a healthy team.

Every team has its ups and downs, every individual has their expectations, working styles, and strengths and weaknesses. Building on past lessons, our team of two at EA Switzerland has been doing monthly 1-h "Team Dynamics" sessions. We have a few prompts that we prepare in silence at the beginning of the meeting, and when we're done, we talk about them.

  • How do you find working with the team? 
  • Do you think we’re headed in the right direction as a team?
  • Is there anything we can do to improve team dynamics? How can we make this more effective and more fun? What’s something we can/should start doing as a team?
  • Are there any aspects of our team culture/company culture you wish you could change?
  • What’s one thing we can do to improve internal communication?
  • How is the workload? Should we redistribute responsibilities?
  • Let’s give ourselves constructive feedback
    • What is a difficult but useful conversation that you think could be had in our team that we are not having?
    • Feedback (Prompts: Keep doing/Start doing/Stop doing)
      • Two positive points
      • Two development points

The value of those meetings is tremendous. It pushed us to have many conversations one would have given up on because it wouldn't be too serious enough to sit down and talk about it. But because we sit down every month and are prompted to talk about positive and negative things anyway, well, there are many more things that we have shared with each other. It lowered the bar of talking about the small (and sometimes big) things that bother us, and we worked through things that could have poisoned our relationship over time without us even noticing (you've heard it over and over already, but still, thank you for the amazing teammate you are).

4. "Work With Me" documents can go a long way.

In the same vein, when we started working together, we were suggested to write a "Work With Me" document with the following prompts:

  • Who I am
  • What motivates and excites me
    • I'm motivated by ... / I enjoy doing ...
    • I'm excited about / want to learn more about ...
    • I don't like ...
  • What is my working style
    • I'm good at ...
    • I'm bad at ...
  • How to work with me
    • I appreciate ... in a coworker
    • My communication style is ...
    • I need ... in a team
    • etc.

At the beginning of a professional relationship, especially a tight one (like a two-person team in a...two-person org), it calibrates expectations and adjusts behaviors in ways that can significantly improve team dynamics. At least, we have experienced that effect in our team, sometimes even months after we started working together. Some conversations we had went much better than if we haven't had written about ourselves for each other.

I am really grateful that we did that, and that we continue building on it as we learn about ourselves.

I might share my "Work With Me" document with you if you ask for it (pm / email).

On Operations:

5. Scaling without robust operational foundations is a recipe for failure.

We have struggled with our operations infrastructure several times (e.g. around accounting or human resources), and I've seen how inefficient infrastructures can significantly impair someone's work. 

In my experience, some "quick and dirty" work aimed at quickly starting to do impactful work can result in hastily built, weak foundations that are not meant to sustain long-term growth. If nobody acknowledges the weakness of those foundations and fixes them in due time, the cracks might start to spread.

I now want to spot foundational weaknesses as early as possible and tackle them before they become urgent. Because when they do, the task can become overwhelming. Sometimes it's hard to see why those operational tasks should be prioritized, and I've learned this the hard way. The longer we waited, the longer it took to fix it.

6. Technical debt is frustrating but probably unavoidable.

In a way, this follows the previous learning. Being "quick and dirty" to make something happen can be a trade-off you definitely want to make. But it might mean that you're kicking one or two cans down the road, and at some point someone needs to pick up that can. In several occasions I've been the one to pick up that can, even though I was not the one that kicked it. And I have been so frustrated about it.

I guess feeling frustrated was legitimate. Someone told me it was called "technical debt", and explained to me why it's usual to be dealing with this (thank you, too!). Only significant resources and adequate foresight (that you might not have at the time) can help you anticipate those issues. It truly helped me recover from my anger and my blaming other people (whether it was fair or not, I don't care anymore, and I hold no grudges). So I grew to understand and accept my situation, and I also realized I might be doing the same for others after me, too. I hope they'll forgive me.

Avoiding technical debt seems hard because it means prioritizing the longer term while you could just get some stuff done ad hoc. It means anticipating how what you're doing could be scaled, and investing in building systems that support this future scaling of the current work. An example in community building: you can explain to every new group organizer how your bank system works, and answer questions as they go, or you can invest in building a handbook and recording videos and have one place where one can find most of what they need to work with your bank system. It will take more time at first, but in the long run, it is worth it. The same can be said about putting the community network into a Client Relationship Manager (CRM) or measuring your impact with a proper Monitoring & Evaluation (M&E) framework.

[edit] Someone suggested "technical compromise" as a better wording to describe this concept.

On Growth:

7. Talk to as many people as you can. Write your thoughts and get feedback early and regularly.

In late 2022, I embarked on a journey I never thought would have taken me so far. With the support from my 80,000 Hours advisor, I started talking to 2 people about my exploration of a career in biosecurity and/or policy. And 2 people became 4, then 10, and then...70. I talked to more than 70 people that are somewhere on the biosecurity / policy spectrum. And I've learned and grown so much (thank you all!).

It might seem scary. What do I tell those people? What's my agenda? What if they don't like me, or think they're wasting their time with me? I've been there. Maybe some people along the way thought I was stupid or boring. But from where I am today, I am really glad I went for it anyway. I also think the general culture in the EA community (or at least the subset I was exploring) also helps a lot, as people are genuinely happy to talk and try to find ways to help.[1]

Now you might be thinking: this has nothing to do with community building at EA Switzerland! As explained in footnote #[1] above, I started writing about my ideas and asking for feedback on them, which stimulated my learning, but also my drive to act. It pushed me to start projects. At some point in that journey, I realized that I could apply the same process in my work at EA Switzerland, and in some ways, I was already doing it. But it made me more intentional about it and aware of the process I was following. So I became more and more forward about reaching out to people to talk, I pushed myself more to write about my ideas and projects (sometimes they were bad and people told me, and it helped me spend my time in more useful ways), and I tried to be more shameless in asking people to read and comment my documents, early and regularly. (again, thank you everybody)

It also pushed me to offer 1-on-1s and feedback on write-ups as often as I could, a way for me to give back and act on my gratitude to those who offered support to me.

8. Gatekeeping hurts truth-seeking.

It's tempting to make some conversations exclusive. Maybe it's to go faster, or to avoid the uncomfortable unknown, or maybe because it doesn't seem impactful, or anything else. Most of the time, I'd guess it's because one doesn't think making something more inclusive will make it better.

But we're full of biases, and sometimes by making some places exclusive, we lose opportunities to learn and grow. I've been hesitant to share our thoughts on strategy with a wider public, afraid of having to process and implement too much feedback for what I could handle. But in the end, I'm really glad we did, because it only pushed us to explore our thoughts further and be more rigorous about our community-building strategy.

Damon Centola writes in Change: How To Make Big Things Happen (a reading that I highly recommend) that "wisdom from the periphery" is important to the conversation, and that "leaders have to be intentional about bringing those voices into the conversation", quoting Mr. Obama who would "make a habit of calling on these people in the outer rim [of the Cabinet meeting room] because [he] knew that they were doing all the work."

Sometimes it doesn't feel like gatekeeping[2]. But every time I make something exclusive, I want to ask myself why, and if it is really for the better. I hope I'll find the strength to change my mind when there is value to it, even if it's more effortful.

9. Social networks play a key role in people's behaviors.

I regularly ask myself: how do I motivate people to attend this event? How do I get those interesting but very busy people to contribute their experience to our retreats? How do I get more people to apply to this seminar? In Centola's book, I learned that most of our behavior changes come from what our network does. He describes an experiment that proved what motivated people to put solar panels on their roofs: "[the choice] was ultimately determined not by financial incentives or informational awareness, but by the number of neighbors who had installed panels in their community. The more neighbors who adopted, the more that citizens believed it was expected of them."

I was told a few months ago that three people in our 40ish-person retreat would not have joined if it wasn't to see two other specific people again. And I've also seen many event attendees who would not have been there if it was not for a friend. The best marketing strategies cannot replace social ties, and I want to capitalize more on them.

10. Cultivating one's support network accelerates growth.

I've realized time and time again that none of the accomplishments I might attribute to myself are a result of my actions alone. There are so many big and little parts played by all the people around me.

After a year, I can see how much being part of a support network (volunteers, community builders, friends, etc.) has transformed my work and my ideas. I've grown faster than I would have ever imagined thanks to the working groups, book clubs, workshops, etc. that the people around me have offered me. I'm not sure how yet, but I want to be sure that I cultivate that network, and that I give back.

Many thanks to the EA Switzerland's team, board, and volunteers. I am also deeply grateful for the extended team of community builders around the world (especially through the Community Building Grants Program). Special thanks to my book club, without which I would certainly have not read, processed, and discussed such interesting bits of human knowledge.

Thanks to Guillaume Vorreux, Marieke de Visscher, and Henry Papadatos for their feedback.

Opinions and mistakes my own.

  1. ^

    I went through different phases when talking to people.

    - At first it was very uncertain: "I'm thinking about that for my career, and I would like to learn more about it from people who are working in the field." Basically a "Tell me about yourself and the work that you do."

    - Then I started using more specific prompts, like "How did you get there?" "What advice would you give to someone who wants to be in a similar position?" "What's the best and worst thing about your work?" "What would you wish were happening in your field, but is not?"

    - At some point, I developed some ideas of some stuff that I could help with, or specific trajectories for my career. So I started asking for feedback on my ideas, and then writing about them, and asking for feedback on my document, and iterating like this, sometimes coming back to people with new questions

  2. ^

    It is somewhat related to something I wrote before on the overwhelming English-speaking aspect of the community.





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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

I really liked the post! Thanks for writing it.

Thank you for writing this! Many of the points, especially 1-5, overlap with my experience. "It's crazy how low the bar can be for people to feel empowered." was and still is a surprise to me.

Executive summary: The author reflects on their first year as a full-time community builder at EA Switzerland, sharing lessons learned in areas such as managing people and teams, operations, growth, and networking.

Key points:

  1. The author relearned the importance of unstructured conversations in fostering creativity and exploration, often yielding more productive outcomes than structured meetings.
  2. Empowering people can be as simple as giving them a nudge in the right direction or showing genuine interest in their work.
  3. Regular feedback sessions are crucial for maintaining a healthy team dynamic, allowing for open discussion on improvements and issues.
  4. Creating a "Work With Me" document helps to calibrate expectations and improve team dynamics.
  5. Scaling without robust operational foundations can lead to inefficient work processes and potential failure.
  6. Technical debt is frustrating but often unavoidable, requiring significant resources and foresight to mitigate.


This comment was auto-generated by the EA Forum Team. Feel free to point out issues with this summary by replying to the comment, and contact us if you have feedback.

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