Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Community strategy: lessons from a cult, part 2

Over the past few months, I’ve noticed several friends joining Landmark Forum groups on FB. Landmark has always caught my eye because in a strange way, it’s the ultimate group. Cult or not, it’s a vibrant community of support, affirmation and collaboration. They even tout productivity and communication as their hallmarks. Also, if you’ve ever been involved or have friends who are, you know it has fanatical loyalty. Engagement, anyone? I’ve never done any formal analysis of their communities, but I’m curious how they’d “score” on what are becoming more traditional metrics of community health.

A couple of years ago, I talked to a friend after an intense “blowout” weekend at Landmark. A few unexpected things jumped out at me from our conversation, perhaps lending cues as to how they master the cult-like bond.

1. No notes – implicit collaboration?

Apparently you're not allowed to take notes throughout the intensive weekend-long session. By not taking notes, you're compelled to talk to others to make sense out of what's going on. 

Takeaway: no learnings are private—it really enforces a team mentality. What you would normally keep to yourself, you do in a glass house.

2. Effort justification

The weekend training costs $500. In order to justify the money spent, you’re compelled to put in a certain amount of effort. Once you've invested all that cognitive work (apparently some of the tasks are quite difficult-- digging up all sorts of 'skeletons in the closet'), you rationalize your choice to join. 

Takeaway: people are constantly benefit-seeking – this must promote a really positive climate.

3. It’s hot. "It's the new yoga"

My friend literally said this to me. Everybody's doing it. They claimed that in the same fashion that people flocked to yoga studios 15 years ago, Landmark training is taking the nation by storm. 

Takeaway: people are made to feel like early adopters; either that, or they fear being left out.

4. Allegiance with a mentor

On the last night of weekend training, you're encouraged to bring a friend, if you know any, who has already been through the program. Thus, your friend, at a more advanced stage of justification helps affirm your progress. 

Takeaway: community elders are vital to success. They facilitate your transition and establish their role as a mentor for the confusion you will surely face as a newbie.


Anonymous said...

It is hard to tell where you land on this topic. I did the Landmark Forum and I would not call it a cult at all. Interestingly, I think what you outline here could be mapped on to the Barak Obama campaign.

kate said...

I land on intrigue - I tried to work backwards from the notion of a vibrant community and parse out some of the factors potentially responsible. My goal was to glean tactics for replicating this level of connectedness, purpose, loyalty, etc. As you point out, these strategies might be common across communities. Thus, the beginnings of a hypothesis as to what makes a community vibrant...

Gary Stein said...

There's definitely an element of a bonding and binding experience that is a part of Landmark, as well as other communities that grow. By putting people in a disconnected space (weekend away) with a bit of struggle (no notes), you naturally bring them together.

This is one of the biggest challenge of the new wave of groups, which all tend to be virtual. Clicking a "become a fan of (x)" is hardly a binding experience. It's not an experience at all. So, you're listed as a part of a group, but you haven't got much real connection to it. If 90% of the groups that I 'belong' to on Facebook and LinkedIn disappeared tomorrow, I don't think I'd shed a tear.

Takeaway: I don't actually know. I suppose you could think about creating an experience that is a bit more emotionally-charged than simply clicking a link to join a community.

kate said...

Right. I think stimulating some sort of emotional charge in virtual communities is part of it; purpose, of course, ever-important… and perhaps a few other effort-eliciting tasks will better allow members to bond. I think the biggest challenge is incentivizing that initial investment and balancing the continued effort with rewards.

Then, I wonder under which conditions the 'disconnection' is effective. Sometimes (second life), maybe there’s too much disconnection... Thanks for your thoughts, Gary!

wendyjduncan said...

Landmark has all of the classic signs of a cult. Learn more about cults and then evaluate Landmark.

Wendy J. Duncan
Author: I Can't Hear God Anymore:Life in a Dallas Cult

kate said...

Thanks for stopping by, Wendy. I would very much enjoy reading about your first-hand perspective. As I mentioned in my comments, I was really trying to be constructive by deconstructing a tight-knit, "engaged" group without making any value judgment. I'm in the business of figuring out how to measure social interactions online...
While cults can be debilitating and abusive, from a theoretical perspective, it's always important to understand the tactics involved that lead to these extreme situations - if only for therapeutic and preventative purposes. Undoubtedly, you're familiar with Lifton and Schein's work analyzing the US POWs in the Korean war.