Limited capacity in forming communities: How to stay resilient?

Two attendees at the January 8 Intentional Communities Advocates session raised the issue of limited capacity due to small membership and burn-out in forming communities. One attendee expressed very understandable and significant emotional distress when recounting the years of effort their group has invested in their dream of community, which has suffered some set-backs over time, and the anxiety the group is feeling now that the primary “mover and shaker” is setting boundaries due to emerging burn-out. The need to proactively distribute authority to carry work forward early in the forming stage was touched upon as a way of preventing over-stressing single individuals by clarifying roles and domains and keeping double-linking process active. Advice as to “what you should have done” only goes so far, however. It is common for one or two Burning Souls to initiate and develop the emerging community concept in the forming stage–and re-structuring to share the burden of work can happen at any time because Burning Souls can become blind to their own limits when gazing at a Bright Vision of the Future.
Another attendee sharing this problem in their group recognized the Parent Group had made the assignment of domains/aims to Child Groups too complicated–the demand exceeded the sub-group’s capacity. In this case, recognition that the Parent Circle needed to track the sub-circle’s actions and their outcomes more closely became apparent during the discussion. This version of burn-out was more like “die off”–the sub-circles just faded away. They were not getting effective support and were not able to recognize their own limits. Putting time into understanding just what needs to be done and laying out progressive action plans can provide structural guidelines as the need for adaption and change emerges.


One tool I’ve found helpful to stay resilient is called polarity mapping. It identifies two poles which attract movement - typically it’s a yin/yang kinda thing, and functions as a way to find balance between them. “Collective leadership” and “individual leadership” may apply in your case. Then for each pole you identify warning signs that things are swinging too far in that direction, and action steps to take to bring things back to balance. Creating this as a group was a really powerful activity that re-energized folks and opened up space for more leadership without people feeling like they would become the next burdened leader. Feel free to copy from our work here: Polarity Map - VillageCo & Jason - Google Docs


Thanks Kath for highlighting these challenges. We at Tiny House Community Bristol (UK) have seen active members come and go over the last couple of years with a significant reduction in circles and circle activity through 2023.

This is partly to do with the complexity (and dare I say it, drudgery) of the Council processes we’re having to go through which have almost sucked us dry, and we can’t expect all active members to engage with as it’s too complex to learn quickly and very time consuming.

Overall we’ve lost structure and flow and so have reached a point of needing to redesign our structure to reflect our current reality as we take stock and look to the year ahead.

Our founder is the only person for whom this is her only job (mostly unpaid) and so she has tended to pick up elements that can’t be held by others, and to work faster than others because she’s been working on it most days of the week for a number of years and is now needing to focus on her wellbeing and set boundaries.

Are there tools, insights, other stories or guidelines to help with this restructuring to create greater resilience, which also help with the distribution of leadership?

In 2021/22 we did really well at learning and practicing sociocracy, with more diverse active circles and people stepping in to their areas of interest and it was brilliant.

Having to interface with Business as Usual structures and processes which require so many hours spent on endless report writing, bid writing business planning etc can take the soul and inspiration out of the work.
Also, in our case, there’s no guarantee that those doing the work will get a home at the end of it. So why would people put the work in?! This is psychologically disempowering. It is a stipulation of the council - we must take residents from their own housing needs list which has over 20k people on it. (though we are of course trying to find a way to give our members more certainty).

Would love to hear any further insights and guidance to help us to re-form in a more power-sharing, time-sharing way.

I wonder if we have to go back to basics and ask people which of our aims they’re interested in working towards and see where the energy is?

All thoughts welcome

See more here: www (dot) tinyhousecommunitybristol (dot )org

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The challenges THB faces direct attention to the complexities of establishing a viable “gift economy” embedded in established institutions created to serve an economic committed to “capitalistic” values.

You and others have been willing to invest in the future of Bristol, in terms of cultivating an effective solution-oriented project that can provide good housing and a great social support network, but relying on the donation or use of public land positions public policy ahead of your needs, as volunteer developers.

I have a thin grasp of the British governance systems, so my comments will have limited scope, but…the first thing I thought of was accessing private land–either purchase by investors who will live in the community, or by a land trust–and creating some kind of binding agreement that volunteer labor would earn the privilege of “moving to the head of the line”–perhaps on a restricted basis, like “20 people THB identifies” as the those offered a long-term, non-transferrable lease in exchange for their service. Or creating some kind of public/private partnership? I’m really moving out of my depth here–just offering ideas for brain-storming.

It was wonderful to welcome you onto our discussion platform, Maddy. Your thoughtful post has added a very important topic for further discussion.

Hi Maddy!
I will only reply to the sociocratic part of your question, because that’s where I feel I can help. So, how can sociocracy practices support in the challenging context that you are, but not really how to improve the context itself.

First, I do want to say that Jason’s Polarity Mapping seems great and might help prevent such a situation form happening again, and let your crew know what to do if the symptoms reappear. So, when the structure is redone after the current emergency, I’d try that!

For now, I think you’re heading in the right direction when you write about going back to basics. What I imagine would be in 2 steps. First, since you mention you have less people than you used to, I guess you now have too many circles with not enough people in them. So, you could do either a whole redesign of your circle structure, or you take the current structure and just merge back some sub-circles into their parent circles. So yes, for that, it would be useful to have an idea of who is motivated by what.

Then, this person who needs to do less, is probably leaving some operational things behind. You could do an inventory of all that this person was doing. She probably had a role description? You could take that, and explode it in many smaller roles, still clumping together the sub-roles that fit together. You also determine which circle (of your new, reduced structure) each new role belongs too. Then, within those circles, you do a role-selection for those smaller roles among the members of the circle.

Any feedback on this? I’d be interested to know how it sounds to you Maddy, and to others! Especially certified consultants, since I’m not yet!