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What start-ups can learn from affinity groups

The start-up world has come to the same conclusion as many social movements, that a small group of people working together make the most effective and creative choices.

A group of around seven people is recommended by both Google Venture’s “Design Sprint” method, as well as various activist guides to “affinity groups”.

The idea with affinity groups however, is not only to organise your part of an event or action, but also to be a part of a bigger horizontal structure of other groups working towards the same ends.

While the close-knit cooperation in a start-up is a good thing for creativity, it hits a wall when it comes to cooperation with others. The economic incentives doesn’t encourage that. In the rule book of capitalism you can do four things: you can compete, you can merge, you can buy or be bought. This creates a tribal culture were you only look after your own little group. The priority is your clan, not innovation, cooperation or the free flow of ideas.

A small group will be good at coming up with creative ideas, but not at solving large scale or long term problems. And the clan culture stops the kind of collective intelligence where a large group of people can create truly innovative solutions.

As this clan culture clearly stifles innovation, some alternative cultures arise, like co-working spaces, meet-ups and hackathons. But this still has limited effect. The culture of competition and only looking after your own needs to be more consciously broken if we want to see more large scale innovation and proliferation of good ideas. That requires not only a cultural shift, but also creating economic incentives for cooperation.

A structure for sharing ideas and profits between different worker-controlled companies through a horizontal network of start-ups could be one way. This kind of large scale horizontal coordinating is done all the time at large activist gatherings, so the methods are just there ready to be used by future minded entrepreneurs.