Learning from Communities: A Conversation with Cormac Russell

The study of communities and community-building activities can provide important insights into collaboration within and between organisations. Over the last 21 years Cormac Russell has worked in 35 countries, with communities, agencies, non-governmental organisations and governments. This post includes the podcast and transcript of a conversation between Cormac Russell and me, about learning from communities.

A short edited version of the conversation can be found here in HindSight 26.

Key Points

  1. Healthy communities have permeable boundaries to allow people in, and to create space for people who are inside to be able to get out.
  2. Communities have ‘connectors’ at the edge, who connect people and help create community. Connectors are trusted and gift-oriented.
  3. People can be seen in terms of their gifts, skills and passions. Discovering these and connecting them between people is at the heart of asset based community development.
  4. Professions have become more siloed, and the effect can be to ‘other’ those people who are not in the silo.
  5. Organisations can help to understand interdependence via small group conversations.




Steven Shorrock (SS): Cormac Russell, thank you for making the time to talk to me on this podcast from a series called Inquiries from the Edge. I wonder if you could just take a moment to introduce yourself the listeners to who you are and what it is that you do.

Cormac Russell (CR): Sure, so it’s good to be with you Steve, and good to be participating in this conversation, this inquiry.  I suppose the space that I hold dearest is just this love of community, and an interest in how to grow community. My formal credentials around that are that I am an ABCD faculty member, and ABCD stands for asset based community development. So there is an Institute that essentially is at the centre of trying to understand how people, you know, living in indigenous communities in small bounded places can get powerful. And we have spent a long time thinking about people all over the world. So I personally, over the past 21 years, have been working in about 35 different countries at that neighbourhood or small place level. Really thinking about power as distinct from empowerment – really thinking about how people themselves get connected and grow power. And the methodology that we use is called, as I have said, asset based community development. So I have a little bit of responsibility around promoting that the approach in the UK. So that is another appendage to my name I am Director of ABCD in Europe.

SS: So you talk about community there. What in your mind makes community a community? What defines a community?

CR: Yes it’s a great question, and I think a question that could probably tie us up in knots in a lot of ways, but the working definition that I think a lot of people seem comfortable with is that it is a group of related people. What they are related to or what they are related by is, kind of, perhaps academic. What I really like to do is ask the question ‘where is community?’ because I think today that if we want to talk about ‘what is community?’ we could have so many disembodied examples.

I regularly hear people refer to groupings of people as communities and when you enquire into the reality, you find that there are a lot things that are excluded. I would personally think about when I think about community, I would think about culture. I think about economy. I think about environment, the place, if you like – built and natural. I think about the associational life of the community but also the capacity of the community to welcome others that are not currently in the community into that space.

So I think…I’m a little bit hesitant about just defining community as a related group of people. I often say that if you are standing on earth there is more community happening under your feet then there is above the ground. You know, so community means an awful lot of things and the fullest definition for me is a group of related people that are also related to the place that they are in, in some shape or form, are creating a culture together that will prevail beyond them, and have some way of making exchange happen.


SS: Right, so that relates to the reason for our conversation today, really. As you know I am the Editor in Chief of a magazine called HindSight, which is directed primarily at air traffic controllers and also pilots. It’s a safety magazine produced by EUROCONTROL. And the next edition of HindSight is called ‘Safety At The Interfaces’ and it’s about participation between different groups of people. Now the interesting thing is, some of those groups, especially tightknit groups such as air traffic controllers and pilots, will sometimes use the word ‘community’ to describe their groups. So what are you’re thoughts on that and what makes these groups different to the natural communities that you work with?

CR: Well I think, there is a paradox, in this because I guess that what people do when they are describing themselves as being in a community is that they are trying to say that these are my people, and we have a way of being in relationship with each other. And so one doesn’t want to say anything that dishonours that or makes people feel ‘less than’. But it feels to me that that maybe what they are actually experiencing and trying to describe is a peer group. And to an extent what they are experiencing within that peer group is many of the experiences that we have when we create community and maybe even family. You often hear people talk about their fraternity as a family or as a community, but it does seem to me that if we wanted to be little bit more precise, I think what would be talking about is a group of people who are associating with each other and their shared … you know, what helps them to be related is the fact that they are all, in this instance, of the same discipline. And so to me that’s probably a peer group. Now it’s interesting isn’t it because to an extent you might say that that’s splitting hairs but if you think about another peer group, if you think about a peer group of people who are in recovery from addiction, they also have other aspects to their lives, you know, outside of that peer group, and a healthy peer group would encourage those different aspects to their lives.

The interesting thing, I think, about a peer group is that it’s a group of people who are together by consent rather than control. So there’s something that is consenting about them being in relationship with each other and that’s something maybe to explore because I wonder when, you know, you have a group of, say, people who come together and form a golfing club in an institution like yours. They’re peer group as well, right? They are related by their affinity to golf, and to each other. How that dynamic is different than a peer group that is organised around discipline would be really interesting to think about that and what kinds of dynamics and behaviours are created within those contexts.

SS: So related to that in your book, which is called ‘Looking Back To Look Forward’, you interview a pioneer in community development, Professor John McKnight. And he related to you story about a group that he once belonged to called the ‘County Labrador Retriever Owner Association’. I wonder if you can recall the story because it relates to something you’ve just mentioned?


CR: My recollection is that John was talking about having a strong affinity to dogs. He’s a great lover of dogs, and so we were talking about what we would call associations. So this Labrador Association just had this wonderful love for Labrador dogs, so he felt at home. Until a different breed of dog, so I think they were around doing whatever they do in the park or whatever it might be, parading their dogs, admiring each other’s dogs, then feeling good about the praise they were getting for their own dogs. And then walks in to the association somebody else with a breed of dog other than their breed, and suddenly there was a kind of internal consternation in the association. “What do we do with this?”

So he was relating the story to make the point, I think, that they are an affinity group. They have an affinity for Labrador dogs. That there is a paradox, at one level that affinity to dogs allows them to be in a deep relationship with each other but at another level the minute that somebody outside of that affinity group comes in, the group locks down. And that invisible boundary around the group that says “this is the in-group and there’s the out-group” suddenly becomes very apparent by the behaviour.

“Every community, every peer group, every affinity group, has this invisible boundary that says to the world “these are the people who are in, and these are the folks who are out”.

So the very thing that allows community forecloses on community. He was trying to relate this idea that every community, every peer group, every affinity group, has this invisible boundary that says to the world “these are the people who are in, and these are the folks who are out”. So his challenge to us, I think, was to figure out how you could blur, or how you could create permeability around those boundaries. And to an extent that’s kind of the challenge of community. Its not to be able to grow a closed hermetically sealed circle like an awful lot of affinity groups online are, for example, they are the same like-minded people who vote the same, live in the same kind of house, think the same, look the same. And we have seen how populism has grown, you know, in recent elections and recent public decision-making as a consequence of this. So he’s really pointing that out to us and that this is pretty dangerous, this kind of tribalism, but it can feel cosy and it can feel warm and fuzzy at the same time.

SS: So he was saying what holds us together is the belief that we have the best breed of dog. And maybe as professions, professions of all sorts, think that we are the best breed of profession and we have to have a boundary around our profession which may be a social boundary, it may even be physical boundary. So thinking back to air traffic controllers, they work in an operations room, an Ops room, which may be a tower or a radar centre, but there is tight security and it’s for good reason, it’s not easy for anyone to get in or out. So there are all kinds of boundaries around this group of people. But the question then is, is that boundary always a good thing and when do we need to create that permeability in the boundary in order that air traffic controllers can interact with others that they need to interact with in order to create safety both in the short term and in the long term?


CR: I suppose in a sense there is a tension here in the question because the one thing that we don’t want to do is get into a dualism or a polemic that says having an identity around our discipline, and having fraternity allows us to feel good about what we do, is not necessarily bad. So how do we get the best of it, but as you say allow it to breathe, allow it to be open.

“It isn’t just allowing people in. It’s also about creating space for people who are inside to be able to get out on to do other things”

It’s interesting, it isn’t just allowing people in, I think, it’s also about creating space for people who are inside to be able to get out on to do other things. Because my sense of it is if you go back to the Labrador idea and the Labrador dogs, what held them together was certainly this sense of, Labradors you know it’s the best thing, but actually in truth there’d be quite a few people who are reasonable and who maybe don’t hold that is tightly or as firmly. But in order to maintain their affinity and their membership of the group, they kind of have to play a game. They have to become socialised into almost “we are the best”, so there is that kind of tribalism piece.

And I think there is something about saying, how do we free some folks up inside those groups who are probably more pro-social, who are probably more at the edge anyway, and can just operate in the interface. Because everybody isn’t at the centre of the community circle. They are quite…people are spread all over. Some are more at the edge. Some have a foot in and a foot out.  So I think some of it is about being able to say, well actually if we look closely at it rather than definitively saying, you know, we got a set of pilots or we’ve got a set of air traffic controllers, there effectively is an invisible exclusion zone around them. To be saying, well, in actuality they are probably quite a few who behave like that but quite a few at the edge who are trying to figure out how to negotiate that interface themselves. And we talk a lot about this idea that, you know, when you think about the edge, I think that there are a number of people at the edge. So there are probably people who are loosely called ‘connectors’ at the edge, who move quite fluidly.  I kind of think about them as multicultural in a sense, in that they can move in between any groupings really but they have that competency and capability.

“So there are people who are loosely called ‘connectors’ at the edge, who move quite fluidly.  I think about them as multicultural in a sense, in that they can move in between any groupings really but they have that competency and capability.”

And then I think there are people who are good brokers. They are not necessarily… they may not necessarily be people who are good relationship builders, but they are good askers. So maybe they have an authority or they have a leadership position, that says you know what, I’d like to have different conversation and I’d like different people. So in a sense I think that’s possibly a role you play. You kind of occupy a gap between these worlds.

So I think that when we set out the terrain, if we did a map of the terrain I think it would be helpful to be really cautious about how we diagnose or how we fix our map onto the terrain. And say, you know, the map is not the territory. The territory is much, much more blurry and there are a lot of covert double agents, kind of moving in between all of these bubbles. And so maybe one of the questions is how do we liberate them more, how do we open up and maybe give them the power to have those conversations that begin to shift and change the dynamic.

SS: So you use this word ‘connectors’ and that’s something that you have wrote about on your blog and it’s something I’ve heard you speak about. So rather than asking, I guess, who are they, what is it that connectors actually do?


CR: Well what can I find helpful to think about this how a ‘connector’ is different to a ‘leader’ and a ‘networker’. And then kind of get into how they, what are their practices or what is it that they do. So I feel, and this is a very, very reductive way of describing it, but I feel that leaders are really, really good at crystallising issues that people can get around, so they can grow a followership. Not even necessarily around themselves, but around a vision or an issue, and they can hold some stewardship around that. They are the good ones.

“I feel that leaders are really, really good at crystallising issues that people can get around, so they can grow a followership.”

So we need leaders and I think networkers tend, to my mind, to be, and I don’t mean this at all negatively, but they tend to be quite opportunistic in the way that they bring people together. So they kind of sense the network being about a job of work or being about very intentional exchanges. So I think entrepreneurs are really good networkers. But there is a lot of thought going to who owes who favour and who is good for a favour. There is a lot of transaction, I think, in networking.

For me, I think what distinguishes a connector from a networker or a leader is, number one I don’t feel that a connector, when I am in a relationship with a connector and I see what they are doing, in the relationship, I don’t feel like they are trying to sell me anything, or sell me out. I don’t feel they are trying to impose an agenda upon me so this is kind of inverting your question. I’m now telling you what they don’t do. And I will get to what I think they do.

What I think they do or what I experience them doing, because there are connectors in my life, is number one, I think they are gifted-oriented. So I see them being able to see in me something that I can contribute to somebody else. So I see them looking for that. I don’t, typically I don’t, believe they know that they are. I think that’s just instinctive. Most of them just come born that way. But they are very, you can see it in their interactions, they are almost looking for the hook within you that will join the hook that they have discovered in somebody else. And you can see it in their facial expressions, you can literally, I now recognise, there is recognition, it’s almost like an aha moment when they spot that and I suppose that because they are gift-oriented they’ll spot that through by eliciting, through questions.

So they ask questions, you know. “What do you like to do?” “What are your hobbies?” So you will kind of find that. And in the moment when they hear you say something that they think will either add value to somebody else they know, in terms of their quality of life, or will in some way, maybe, bring something into a space that wasn’t there before, they will say something like “you know I know somebody and I think that you would get on with like a house on fire”. So what’s really interesting about them is two things. One, they’re questioners, they’re revealing gifts, that’s one. The second, is that they are seeing how those gifts, right, so they spotted your gifts and they spotted the gift of another person and somehow they instinctively know that just spotting gifts is not enough. So just doing the discovery is not enough. They then know that they’ve got to connect those two gifts. So two unconnected gifts is reprehensible to a connector. They want to see them connected, so they will make those connections. You will literally find yourself one-minute having a conversation with them and the next minute walking down the street or walking down the corridor, and being introduced to somebody and them say things like well there’s no time like the present and suddenly you’re been carried along. So somehow they feel welcome to do that and you don’t feel like you’re going being to stalked or you’re being bullied in the process. And I think the final thing they do is in the connecting they will often, not always, but they will often say something or do something that suggests that you both act in some way together, or if it’s three or four. So they’ll will suggest that you mobilise.

“Two unconnected gifts is reprehensible to a connector. They want to see them connected, so they will make those connections.”

SS: So they will put a seed in your mind.


CR: That’s right, exactly. And the final thing they do, often, is they then lead by stepping back. They disconnect. It’s really interesting. So this isn’t what a networker does. The networker, kind of stays close up to the network because they need something back from the network. Whereas I find the connector will disconnect. Not in any kind of antisocial way but it’s kind of like “ah, that’s that done now”. So there is a sense of altruism in it, you know, in that they are getting something back but they’re getting something back in terms that allows them to step away.

If we go back to our conundrum of earlier on around the boundary circle that hasn’t got enough permeability, then one of the ways of creating permeability is to find the connectors within each of those circles and help them relate to each other.


SS: So in my professional life, And I guess listeners who are thinking about their worklife, I certainly met several connectors who, they’re often in professional associations and, so they often act in a voluntary capacity. Sometimes they don’t, they don’t want any kind of Association. But what they do is, as I experience those people, is they reach out between professions, between sites. So between one site that may be in one city on one site that maybe in another. And also even between organisations. So they I guess maybe people who are just connectors in their everyday life, but I see people naturally do that kind of thing at work. So they reach out, they maybe controllers, and they reach out to the safety specialists, they reach out the engineers, they form those kind of connections. So is that the kind of person that you’re thinking about?


CR: Absolutely. And in the community context what we would try to do, is we would try to find some kind of way of revealing those connectors, and getting them connected together. So you are creating, you’re optimising possibilities. So they are there naturally, they are in prisons, they are in organisations, they are in families, they are in are communities and, in the sense of communities of place. So it is beginning to say, okay well if they are there, how is the culture currently nurturing what they do naturally anyway, or is it stifling it? And if it is stifling it, how might we, rather than get stuck in that narrative and that story, how might we disrupt that constructively and innovatively? And that’s where community building and community organising comes in think.


SS: Another thing that comes to mind there is that those connectors, when I think about one thing that holds them together or something they may have in common, is that they are trusted and that can be, I think, something that differentiates them from leaders or from networkers who may or may not be trusted, but I sense connectors are always just naturally trusted.

CR: Yes, Absolutely.

SS: That, I guess, it would be a defining characteristic?

“I think it’s really striking isn’t in life generally that when you are in relationship with somebody that isn’t trying to get you to be interested in them but is genuinely interested in you and has an interest in other people, that that’s kind of uncommon.”

CR: I think they’ve earned those credentials. I think it’s really striking isn’t in life generally that when you are in relationship with somebody that isn’t trying to get you to be interested in them but is genuinely interested in you and has an interest in other people, that that’s kind of uncommon. And therefore you’ll find that trust builds very, very quickly with people who behave like that. And what is interesting about them is that even though trusted, they are not in any particular rush. So they are going at the speed of trust. They will read the pace really well. So that’s the other thing. I mean the example I gave you was quite a quick snappy example but I’ve seen connectors patiently take their time to build relationships with people and really very thoughtfully wait for that moment when they, by instinct, felt it was the time to connect or it was a time to introduce something. They are also able to tune in to where people are at in their lives and will make those introductions, those connections, based very much around that.


SS: Something that you mentioned earlier was that people with this connecting capacity are ‘gift-oriented’. I am wondering if you can say a little bit more about what you mean by people’s gifts and how that is relevant to this whole thing about connecting different groups and even connecting people within the same group.

CR: Well I suppose, maybe just to give some definitions around it first of all and then maybe talk a little bit about it in general terms. If you think about a person in terms of their capacities, just to broaden the framework a little bit, I think about people as having gifts, and what I mean by that is stuff that they are just born with, they do naturally. So they didn’t learn necessarily, it’s just a part of their make-up. So I think some people may be very patient, for example. It’s not something that I would say most people would think of definitively as a skill. You know if you say to somebody, “How did you learn to be so patient?” “It’s just my nature, it’s my temperament.” [Dog barking] We know as parents, we have seen it in our children, we see children very, very early on display temperaments. So I think that is the domain of gifts.

And it is very, very interesting, you know, to think about how different genders, actually, in our experience doing a community work we find, we very rarely get away with starting a conversation with a man about “what are your gifts?”. So it is much easier for us to go to the second expression of capacity, which is skills, with men. With women, I think this is a vast generalisation, but, you know across 21 years, 35 countries, you can begin to make some common observations and there are certainly, there are gender preferences around how to start a conversation and grow trust. This is something that connectors know, actually, instinctively as well. So it’s much easier for me to start a conversation with the man about his capacities if I start about his skills, you know. “What have you learned?” “What could you teach?” “What three things do you know well enough that you could pass on to a younger person that you might mentor?”, as opposed to “What are your gifts?”. And it’s really striking and it feels like it has a gender relationship in whatever way you understand that fluid concept.

So the skills piece alongside the gifts is interesting but skills are broadly, you know, as you would imagine that they would be, are things that we’ve acquired, and things that perhaps we’ve refined enough to either feel that we have learned them, and we can therefore find a way of expressing them to the world, whether it’s a craft, you know, or it’s a knowledge skill. So we often talk about the skills, you know, that are head-based skills; things that I know and I could teach somebody else. And skills of the hands, so crafts, you know. Saddle making, I have a cousin who is a saddle maker and he could perhaps, if he had enough patience, teach me that. But I think he has also got a gift for it, he has got a flair for it as well as a set of skills. So we see you these marching together.

“I think you can have a gift and the skill and never express it.”

I think the third thing I think about in terms of capacity is passion. And the way I would make the distinction between a gift, a skill and passion is, I think you can have a gift and the skill and never express it. So I can be very gifted at something I don’t even know. And I think there’s are lots of people in organisations and in life generally outside of the organisational world, in what some people call the life world, you know, outside of institutions, outside of contracts, who have gifts that they don’t know they have. Now the interesting thing is that connectors are really good at helping them see those. So this assumption that we know what our gifts are, or even our skills, is to be challenged.

Now a passion is by definition different because a passion is something somebody is taking action around. They might not be particularly good, but they feel passionately about their kids so they take action to do something and the action might be that the lobby, you know, for better medical treatment for their children. But they are incredibly shy person by nature. So it’s not their gift to speak out, and they have no public voice. When they stand up to make a presentation they would rather somebody shoot them. It’s that fearful for them. So they don’t have a skill around public speaking but somehow at that moment the passion for their child mobilises them to speak out, even though their voice is shaking.

So this is really interesting in my mind, somebody can have those three capacities and to an extent, you know, a lot of our work is about people helping people discover what they are and then contribute them to other people. That’s how you build community, right?  You show up and you make that contribution. So that’s what I think community is about. But you can’t make that contribution until somehow you know that within yourself. Now you can go and spend 10 years in therapy to discover it or you can get involved in community life and dynamically it starts to get revealed. Or you can do both.


SS:  So joining those two things up there, you’ve talked about gifts, skills and passions as our three capacities, which is a useful way of thinking about the contributions that we can make, I think. And the last one of those was passions. Now thinking about the issue of the interfaces between the various professional groups, or the interfaces between various locations of work, or the interfaces between different organisations, it strikes me that those passions are a critical bridge that could be built to connect up disparate groups such as traffic controllers and safety specialists and engineers and meteo specialists, and all of the other kind of specialists that we have in the aviation world that live in silos. So I am guessing a way forward is to look for, well, what do you as professionals in these different groups care about enough to join together and take action on it, for safety or for any other thing – value – any other thing that you care about?

CR: That is certainly one way in. I think there are other entry points and to an extent it might be a scattergun approach. So I think it’s really interesting to just take an environmental perspective on this for a second and say, you know twenty, thirty years ago, if you look at the way organisations would have kind of come together and figured some of the stuff out, certainly a very big part would be having clubs and groups and associations that were about passion and interest as opposed to discipline. And so I think that what they do is they soften out the boundaries. They say, you know, here are a whole set of differences that’s are very demarcated.

“The only way you can have that conversation is to talk about what you can’t do. And that demands a certain humility”

That’s what we do I think in the institutional world we demark. So we elementalise and we talked about specialisms. And the specialism becomes a big part of my identity so I start defining myself by what I am and by what I am not. And a big part of what we are trying to do is, I guess not feed into that while honouring it at the same time. So one of the ways might be, okay well what are some of the areas of common ground where we need each other? “What are the things we can do together that we can’t do apart.” So in a sense that’s an invitation to go right to the very edge of your specialism and be honest about the limits of what you can do. The only way you can have that conversation is to talk about what you can’t do. And that demands a certain humility.

So it’s the opposite of, we are together rah rah rah, aren’t we great. Well yes we are up to a point, but actually let’s have a mature adult conversation about what we can’t do, because I think that moment you can really invite other people into that interface space. People that we need. So it’s the gift conversation, but institutionally, it is saying: “You have a gift that we don’t have. We need it. We can’t do without you. Come in.” That’s the great siren call of community. “You have a wonderful singing voice. We have a choir. I don’t know if you’ve heard it. It’s pretty awful. We need your voice. Come in.” But to an extent that’s, kind of, that is what the connector does at the edge, you know. But it’s also able to bring all the folks who are maybe a bit reticent inside the circle as well, and so you know guys, you know, just listen to yourselves for a second. So there is something about, and we don’t want to put to much burden on the connector here, but definitely there is something about having that conversation at the interface that says it’s in our self-interest.

SS: So what I’m thinking as you’re telling a story is it reminds me of some of my professional experience with these fault lines and the kind of fault lines that come to mind are, For instance between air-traffic controllers and safety specialists. Between air-traffic controllers in tower versus an approach unit downstairs. Between staff of all kinds on two different sites within the same organisation. Fault lines also between staff at different levels, so at management levels and the line controller, engineer and so on level, that’s very common. I’m wondering what would be practical ways, then, for professional groups to begin to address some of those fault lines. I’m thinking maybe of both formal ways or structured, systemic ways but also informal ways.


“When we are in our silos we ‘other’ the people are aren’t in out silos. And we deify the people who are, ourselves included.”

CR: That’s right. I think that’s wise. So again you’ll know more about what would work but I think there’s a rich lane to tap into, and again the point I was making, I think of my father working in Shannon airport and I think it was 41 years, and one of the big parts around how he interfaced, he was ground control manager in Shannon airport in Ireland for a good number of those 41 years, and the way he interfaced and the way he kind of brought people together was very much through fun and food and celebration and conviviality. So the pitch and putt club was a big way of doing that, ensuring that, you know, really challenging the idea that everybody has their own separate Christmas party, and actually saying, no we need to find a way of having, and the Christmas party he always saw as really critical because that was where family came in and where they would, you know, do things. He was very insistent on linking in with the community. So finding ways of being involved in bringing kids on trips to Lapland and things of that nature. Always trying to find ways that he would would bring people in to personal relationship with each other, and connection wasn’t about their discipline. So that was something I learned from him by watching him and he just instinctively understood that if you connect people by discipline they tend to go deeper into their silos but if you connect them by human affinity and by care and compassion and passion, and things like that, they find ways of building relationships that make them more inclined to challenge their silos. Because you are humanising. You are humanising the folk that are ‘the other’. And that’s the problem, you know, when we are in our silos we ‘other’ the people are aren’t in out silos. And we deify the people who are, ourselves included. And so a lot of that attempt to just give people the opportunity to be in relationship with the ‘other’ is, I think, is absolutely gold dust.


SS: So rather than air-traffic controllers having their own annual barbecue or whatever, actually just having a barbecue where you invite people, you flatten the hierarchy that is implicit and you flatten all of the power distance and the power relations and you create an opening around the professional boundary, that’s what you’re talking about.  But doing that in an informal way rather than through a project or through a program or something like that.

“If you try to change the paradigm from within, then all that happens is that antibodies are created to kill off that attempt.”

CR: That’s right. And it’s really interesting because to an extent, if you take the idea, the theory of paradigms, one of the things that Kuhn – the guy who popularised paradigms – would say is that at the edge of every paradigm are ideas that are floating about the place, often disconnected. And it is when they become connected productively that new paradigm form. So it is very much thinking about going to the edge and creating that space. But if you try to change the paradigm from within, then all that happens is that antibodies are created to kill off that attempt and that is why systemically the more effort we put into trying to mentally work out the problem and break down the silo and facilitate different conversations the more rigid, almost, the structures and the silo becomes.

So I think finding playful ways at the edge is really, is very worthwhile, and not just, and the other thing that is interesting and maybe is problematic for your context, is not just thinking about the community as being the institution. But I think what I really appreciate about what my father did was he found ways of creating permeability that invited families in, and invited the wider community in. So he talked a lot about the community being the families of the people who were employed and their wider neighbours. And he talked a lot about this idea that the airport was a citizen among a much wider set of relationships. So the idea that Aer Lingus needed to be a good citizen and in that instance., you know, they had a job of work to do because they were an airport and thinking about how they related to other people. So from anything is basic as noise management right through to making sure that there were days that people could come and maybe, people who would never fly in plane various reasons could have the experience. So I think what he was really instinctively doing was quite systematic in other ways because over the years he was breaking down silos.

“Most police officers I know today talk about their role in relationship to other police officers or to first responders. They talk about their discipline. And so that’s a silo within a silo, in that sense.”

Now interestingly, today if you look at the way that group of people organise, and compared to, say, the way they were organised so 20 years ago, I would say that they have become more siloed. So it’s much, much harder, you can see it four example, It’s really hard to get a group of people to come out to sustain the pitch and putt club, you know. And what that tells me is we’re living in different times. We’re living in times where people are maybe little bit more family-oriented, a little bit more self-oriented, and people are organising around their discipline. We see that now not just in the aviation industry, Steve, we see this in policing, we see this in all of the helping professions that, you know, 20 years ago if you looked at – this is true I think right across Europe – if you how people thought about their job of being a police officer, for example. They would’ve talked a lot about their beat, where they policed, the place, the people, the neighbourhood, the town, the village. Most police officers I know today talk about their role in relationship to other police officers or to first responders. They talk about their discipline. And so that’s a silo within a silo, in that sense. But it’s worth paying attention to it.

So as we try and crack this nut it’s important that we don’t put on rose tinted glasses and look back into the past and, kind of, “okay, you know, let’s recreate what worked 20 years ago” because whatever we do we have to do on the basis enabling people to find ties that bind across silos, that are relevant to the way people live their lives today.

But certainly if there are barbecues that are being organised by silo, a very simple way of maybe thinking about breaking that down would be to suggest that. Now another way would be to say, well, okay so what we want to get to is we want to get to a shared barbecue. But we know that there may be some resistance to that. So how might we systematically go with that based on what we’ve talked about in our conversation. Well what we might initially do is we might invite a group of connectors from each of those silos to work together towards organising a joint barbecue because they will bring people to the barbecue. Where as if we just try and impose it top-down because we think it’s good idea, its going to break the silos, we probably won’t achieve it. So this is a way of taking something that’s very organic and being a little bit more intentional or systematic about it.


SS: And I guess what that might do is reveal some of the interdependencies that exist. So between all of those silos, and you’ve mentioned there police. It’s the same I think with all of the medical specialties who are in a medical silo, but then there are multiple silos within that medical silo. But in fact the work that anyone in any profession, in any silo does is only meaningful in its interactions with all of the other people that are involved in that. So the work of air traffic controllers means absolutely nothing except in the context of their interactions and interdependency with pilots, with engineers, with meteorological specialists, with aeronautical information specialists, with safety, quality, and all of the other groups that you can imagine that form the aviation system. So in a sense the group on its own is only special in relation to all of these other groups of people that they are interdependent with, right?


CR: Absolutely, absolutely. And so that principle of ‘better together’ is something that has to be revealed… I don’t think that we can, we won’t win that argument by stealth of argument. That is something that people need to feel in their bones because the initial impulse is to think that we are conceding, or we’re giving something away or we are losing something, and it’s only when people feel that actually there’s something really valuable, and something to be gained, in fact something quite natural about working this way, and thinking this way, and practising this way, and I think that that’s where the intentional community building comes in. Because that’s now what we’re talking about this. So there is this ideal that says we are better together and then there is a whole set of practices that says well as human beings we like in organising in small groups and that’s as it should be. So what we are really trying to create it is both.

And the minute people think that to be part of a bigger federation, I have to – Catalonia is a case in point, in Spain. And this notion of nation state, or the federation. And we see it in the UK with Brexit, and Europe.

“You can continue to hold your intimate small group connections, while at the same time getting the benefits of the wider relationships and we are going to figure out how to do that in a way that gives you both ends.”

The trick is to be able to say to people you can continue to hold your intimate small group connections, while at the same time getting the benefits of the wider relationships and we are going to figure out how to do that in a way that gives you both ends. And I think a lot of what we do is we give people an either/or’. We say, either you stay in your silos and we will just figure out how to extract the best of you and we will have a separate team of managers who just put that together after-the-fact as best as we can. It will never be perfect. And we just accept that is just the way of the world with a big system.

Or we say to people, you know, part of what we have to do in systems is something we have probably never done which is to build a community that allows mass localism, so that you can have that sense of community, that sense of affinity, that sense of security that all human beings need – to be part of a team, to be part of the group. Which you can’t get past, you know, probably 3 to 5 to 6 people, in a sense of, you can stretch it. A lot of sociologists talk about, Ian Dunbar talks about 150, you go past 150 people and you really into the realm of acquaintances. I think it’s probably overgenerous the most of us. So we know all of this. So I think a big piece, no one individual can figure this out. So I think when you have complex groups and systems together, being able to say you can be Catalonian and you can be Spanish at the same time. And we’ll figure out how that happens.

“You can welcome the stranger at the edge. They won’t compromise your intimacy. In fact they will enhance it.”

And this goes back to the whole question of networkers. I think that networkers federalise. Connectors say you can have the intimacy while also building and proliferating the potential for growing in all kinds of different directions. So you can welcome the stranger at the edge. They won’t compromise your intimacy. In fact they will enhance it. And that’s the role you play in a sense. And that’s a little bit different than connector. I think that’s the role of the animator or the community builder. Beginning to find those connectors and have those conversations, can be sometimes mentored, sometimes trained, sometimes hold attention, but make meaning out of that. Giving people the opportunity to really understand “what’s going on here?”, and being able to say “Ah, alright now, your concern is, you’re going to be giving up something. Let’s find a way of making sure and that you’re not at a loss”. And I think that that’s part of what hardly ever gets teased out.

“So we need to have that social contract conversation. What are your wants what are your offers?”

And that’s why Peter Block’s work is important. The small-group conversation. And being able to have lots of small group conversations that intentionally permeate to allow people to move between those conversations. So I think that’s something else to think about. How can we be intentional in our conversations and involve people that are dissenting and saying “no I don’t agree” and being able to articulate that? Because I think an awful lot of the reason that we’re not building community is not because people are activity dissenting. It’s not because we have a Catalonian outbreak. It’s because people are paying lip service to our attempts to break down silos. They say “oh yeah totally agree, loved that training it was awesome, definitely. I’m going to be this, that or the other.” And then they go back to business as usual. So there is something, I think, about being able to facilitate those kinds of conversations and welcome out the dissenting voice, but inviting people to take their complaints and turn them into requests, and inviting people to articulate what they want as well as what they are prepared to offer. So we need to have that social contract conversation. What are your wants what are your offers? And I think that begins to open things up. And the fluid way of doing that is to create more associational life. Like in the informal spaces as well.


SS: Okay well I think that’s probably a good time to just wrap-up and I think from this conversation, things that have struck out to me are issues of what’s the difference between a community and a professional group. We had a discussion about the boundaries of groups and the positive and more negative aspects of boundaries. We talked about the role of the connector. The crucial role of the connector in connecting people within a community but also connecting people across different professional groups and how they might be able to help what the role of the connector might be. And we talked about informal ways of groups getting together so you mention things like the pitch and putt, you know, and we talked about the barbecue. The informal unstructured ways that connectors might use to connect different groups of people. So in my world whether they are controllers and engineers and safety specialists and pilots or whatever. Rather than always going down the more formal route. Those are I think some of the things that stick in my mind when it comes to the question of the interfaces between different groups between different locations and how we can improve collaboration between those. Is there anything that I’ve missed in that short summary, Cormac?


“Your organisation can show up in very intentional ways to help those things find expression and get connected up as well.”

CR: No I think that covers and I suppose, beginning to recognise that your organisation can show up in very intentional ways to help those things find expression and get connected up as well. The animating piece as important. And in those points of interface you can begin to seed some really interesting conversations and maybe even practices around having conversations. So beginning to have sessions that start with appreciative enquiry or encourage groups talk about their theie wants and there offers. All of that will open up new spaces.

SS: OK well Cormac Russell thank you very much for joining me and giving your time to talk about your experience of community and what insights that might offer us in thinking about professional groups and the boundaries and interfaces between thank you very much.

CR: Thank you, Steve. It’s a pleasure, take care, thank you.



Author: stevenshorrock

This blog is written by Dr Steven Shorrock. I am interdisciplinary humanistic, systems and design practitioner interested in human work from multiple perspectives. My main interest is human and system behaviour, mostly in the context of safety-related organisations. I am a Chartered Ergonomist and Human Factors Specialist with the CIEHF and a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society. I currently work as a human factors and safety specialist in air traffic control in Europe. I am also Adjunct Associate Professor at University of the Sunshine Coast, Centre for Human Factors & Sociotechnical Systems. I blog in a personal capacity. Views expressed here are mine and not those of any affiliated organisation, unless stated otherwise. You can find me on twitter at @stevenshorrock or email contact[at]humanisticsystems[dot]com.

One thought

  1. Excellent piece of work, l would have loved to have taken part in the conversation. I am 83yrs young.still on the journey with fellow travellers young and old, all abilities,walking,talking,doing and still learning.In our community of Doncaster, My role on this journey for the last 53yrs has been leader,connector, networker, a role that has many titles over the years, it is very complex when applied to ABCD especially working across Council departments, which is why l have worked, paid by Youth Service, further education, social services,mainstream education and lots of unpaid work. I am based in Bentley Library, run by unpaid staff,we are a HUB, with many groups using the building, from social to task and educational. We have built up a good network in Greater Bentley, population about 22Thousand. I am passionate about children,young people and families, opportunities for all from ‘the Cradle to the Grave’ . Thank you for the conversation and Cormac’s book, will be sharing them with others.

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