This is my friend John. In 2012 he rowed across the Atlantic. As I write this he is prepping to do something similar, by rowing across the Indian Ocean. The incredible tale of his first row was so compelling that I asked him to speak about it at a couple of events I used to run. 

John is a retired firefighter from Barry, South Wales. As a result, he’s been to more than his fair share of funerals. When signing a book of condolence he came across the poem “The Dash”, which inspired him to name his first rowing adventure “Atlantic Dash”. 

The poem talks about how your entire life is represented by the dash on your tombstone that sits between your birth-date and your death-date. Every hope, dream, failure, success, heartbreak and joy, all represented by a tiny, seemingly insignificant line. This dash feels like an overwhelmingly insignificant way to encapsulate a rich, full, exciting life. The prominence is given to the birth-date and death-date. But all the value is in the dash.

I was thinking about this as I sat on the train to give a talk in Birmingham about community building, and I had this realisation that the same is true of network or community “maps”. You have all these “nodes” that represent the person or organisation in the network. And maybe their size, shape, or colour of these nodes changes to represent various elements of their size, value, sector etc. 

But, as with the dates on the tombstone, that information really doesn’t mean anything without an understanding of the flow of information, resources, value etc between each node. You can capture countless bits of information about individuals or organisations in a community, but without connections to others, they’re just pointless islands bobbing in a limitless ocean.

In other words, the real value in a community is represented by a simple line that just doesn’t do it justice.

Without these lines, the dashes, the nodes exist without connection to other nodes. And therefore have no value. What is a manufacturer without a supplier? What is a tennis player without a practice partner?

But even with the lines we have no idea what is being conveyed between the nodes. Is it one way, or both ways? Does it represent money, goodwill, or collaboration? Or even love?


The nodes are where the potential lies. But they are nothing without the connection.

As community and network builders we often focus far too much on the value and importance of the nodes themselves, without thinking about how to improve the flow of value between the nodes. Whether it’s something systemic, like moving everyone to a unified communication platform, or something more human like ensuring team members have regular coffees, we need to think about how to improve the quantity and quality of exchanges between the people, organisations, or sectors in communities. 

So, when considering your community, and how you can make it more connected, more useful, and more cohesive, consider the the “bonds” between the nodes, and how you can make them stronger. 

Think about how you create better bonds. Better dashes. The stronger the dash, the clearer the pathway to better connections.

Don’t just create things for the community just for the sake of it. Create and do things that strengthen bonds, create pathways, and leave some kind of legacy.

Sometimes that can be as simple as getting people into the same room at the same time, but it isn’t always easy. Sometimes people want to stay stuck in their silos, and need to be convinced to come to the table. But if you create pathways to connection then those that want to progress will be able to find their way more easily. Whether it’s a connection with a fellow tennis lover, a potential investor, or an industrial collaborator, think about how you make it easier for everyone involved.

So, here’s a few questions to ask yourself when pulling together ideas, events, and projects for community building:

  • Have you built a pathway, rather than just an isolated thing?
    • In other words, have you made it easier for connections to be made, and to remain. Or have you just created something that will happen, and then be forgotten? There’s arguably no point in organising an event if there’s no mechanism for those people to stay in touch, or ever meet again.
  • How can you ensure that any connections made will last, and deepen?
  • Have you over-engineered it? 
    • Is there a simpler way to achieve the same effect?
    • The Water Cooler effect couldn’t be simpler, but it has proven benefits – even improving scientific research!
  • Who are the key members of the community, and how can you engage them?
    • Try not to default to the obvious ones – are there ways in which you can diversify your “key” group?
  • Are the pathways already there?
    • If so, why are they not working?
    • Are they blocked?
    • Can we unblock them more easily than creating new ones?

Measuring community “success” is notoriously difficult. Sometimes it’s one of those things that you can’t put down on a bit of paper, but you’ll be able to “feel”. So don’t beat yourself up if you can’t see obvious, immediate effects. It’s not an overnight process. 

A good way to think of it is to ask yourself how much “data” is passing through the dash. Whether that’s money, emotion, support, or regular contact. You can follow each other on every form of social media, but unless there’s some value in your exchanges, I’m not sure it contributes to improved communities.

In my next post I’m going to look at some of the simple ways in which I’ve found to improve community building without over-engineering it.

Further reading:

You can see John’s talk at TEDxCardiff here.
You can read the poem The Dash here.
Follow John’s latest adventure here.
Article about how the Water Cooler Effect and more “face time” among scientists improves scientific research.