Trees: A Parable of Community Management
A true story. Waiting for the bus last Tuesday on a crisp November morning, I felt the lump in my throat. I had gotten home from work very late the evening before and hadn’t noticed until the morning that a tree had been cut down in the apartment courtyard the day before. According to my partner, the “simple repairs” my apartment complex had notified me of now included chopping down trees. He pointed to the one stump outside.
I was anxious but remained calm. I live on the 9th floor of a large urban building, where for the last seven years I’ve had these trees right outside my window to shade me, shelter the birds that visited my patio, block noise, and provide a tranquil oasis of green and clean oxygen in the middle of city concrete. I depended on those trees. They were a part of me after so many years. Surely it was just one tree? They wouldn't chop them all down without telling us, would they?
On my way out in the morning I stopped one of the workmen to ask and got the horrible news: yes indeed, all 14 of the 40-50 year old trees outside my window were to be cut down. The roots of the trees were starting to affect the structural integrity of the parking garage below. The entire courtyard, sidewalks, everything were to be taken out, and the construction could go on for months, all through the holidays. But at that moment I couldn’t even think of that. All I could see and think about was the fluorescent orange “X” on the trees, the bulls eye, the mark of certain death. To me, it was if a friend was about to die and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I was angry. How dare they do this!
As I rode to work, I thought of the hummingbirds, jays, squirrels, and yes even crows that made the trees their home, which I would no longer see or hear. As I walked from the bus to work, Joni Mitchell’s sweet, sad, soprano lilted through my mind.
They took all the trees, and put em in a tree museum And they charged the people a dollar and a half to see them Don't it always seem to go That you don't know what you got till it's gone They paved paradise, and put up a parking lot
I went to work that day in a daze, saying nothing and thinking that most people would think me silly or weak for caring so much for a few trees. It even surprised and embarassed me—I grew up on a farm and thought people from San Francisco were “tree huggers”—so these feelings of attachmment, and then anger and loss were an entirely new thing for me. I’ve lost very close family members, friends, and beloved pets, and to me this truly was on a par with that loss. I was deeply, deeply saddened. I finally took a chance and mentioned my feelings to a few coworkers who jokingly suggested I get naked and climb the trees in protest, but I didn’t really let on the depth of my feelings, and grief, to anyone except to my partner Frank, who was exceptionally supportive.
Now, I’m the kind of person who can’t just be sad. I always need to be “DOING” something about life, not just sitting around and complaining. So, I contacted the apartment manager. I chastised them for failing to notify us. No response. Eventually they sent a note to the whole complex that explained the whole story, with just one line at the end: “We know it’s hard to lose the mature trees, and we’ll try to replace them.” Blah, blah, blah, I thought. What do they care? It's all about money.
And each day for the next few days I would come home from work and a few more trees would be gone. The first day where half were gone was the worst. The next morning there were no birds to sing. Finally, there was just one tree left, and I took its picture. Last Friday when I got home from work it was gone.
I’ve built my career around my passion—connecting people with each other via the medium of electronic commerce—and this served as a visceral, tangible reminder to me of the emotions people in any community, online or off, feel when managers and companies change things on a platform that they are so invested in--financially, socially, personally, emotionally. So, in the interests of taking something sad, and trying to make something good, here are some takeaways I found, some “dos” and “don’ts” about managing communities through change:
Give the reason for the change upfront. Had I known that the trees were being cut down because the garage might cave in, I’d have still been sad, but I would have been more understanding.
Give people time to adjust: Had I known the trees were being cut down, say a week before, I would have taken a few moments to take a few more pictures and to simply stop and enjoy them, say good bye, and be ready to move on.
Share a positive vision of the future: There must be drawings about what this place will look like somewhere, given the scope of the work. I would have really appreciated a place to view the pictures and drawings of the upcoming plans and it would have helped me understand what things may come. Maybe host a coffee and donut session one Saturday morning to explain.
Accept and validate the community’s fears, grief, and concern. They live there, and you only manage it. Emotions are real, messy, and uncomfortable, and knowing that the management gets it is comforting.
Stay engaged. Keep talking to the community for as long as it takes for a good majority to at least understand and accept the reasons for what's happening. This takes time, and most organizations don't think it's useful---but really, it's more useful than a marketing campaign.
When possible, ask for input about the change: Give the community ownership whenever and whereever possible. You may have to make a change no matter what, but giving people some control about how or when, for example really lessens the negative emotional impact.
Hide the scope of the change. I was most angry and sad about feeling tricked into thinking the change was small when it turned out to be dramatic.
Ignore the outpouring of passion and emotion. The fact that people are angry means they are invested, and they care. From a business standpoint, that is a big sign of customer engagement, so learning to appreciate it and work with it is a powerful strength. Which would you rather have, a blog post with hundreds of comments, or a blog post with none?
Delegate communication. Leaders of the organization need to be very visible and take responsibility for their actions, especially during the most painful changes. It's not easy to deal with the wrath of frightened, angry people, but it's the only way to the other side.
What other community management lessons do you see here? Let’s discuss in the comments.