LF11 - Cohort Futures

On belonging, becoming, and communities with a clock.

Hi, Brian here. Welcome to Little Futures season 2 - a series of six emails alternating between myself and Tom. Last week: Permissionless Identities. This week: Cohort Futures.

Here’s Anita Schillhorn van Veen, writing about her new “Zoom friends”:

In the last six months, I’ve grown close to several communities composed of people I’ve never met in person. We gather on Slack, Discord, and Zoom, share conversation and ideas. I’ve made friends and built connections without leaving my home. There are people I’ve never hugged, never high-fived, and never even spoken to in person, with whom I have profound conversations that span work, love, and ideas. The bright side of this dark year for me are the connections I’ve made, primarily online. 

If the web’s first promise was low cost, real-time connection, its second was community - anyone, anywhere, could find a place where they belong.

Which brings us to today.

A dazzle of Slack bases, Discords, Telegrams, and Circles later, and it feels like we’ve arrived somewhere. Maybe it’s the post-social media era, where people move off the open platforms and into a curated mosaic of niche, private, and cooperative spaces. Or, maybe it’s just that the web we needed was here when we needed it.

This is a web built for belonging, if you are fortunate enough to know where to look.

But what comes after belonging?

If we move up Maslow’s hierarchy, the answer might be becoming.

And if communities are spaces for belonging, cohorts are spaces for becoming.

A holding environment for growth

Our findings teach us about the different ways that the learner cohort served as a space of developmental transition and transformation: a holding environment for growth

The Power of a Cohort and of Collaborative Groups

The primary difference between a community and a cohort is that the first is oriented around the relationships between the collective members, and the second is oriented around the progress of each individual. In short, communities are built to connect, cohorts are built to progress.

A cohort production function

Here is what I think makes cohorts work.

Cohorts have a clock. Communities are built via presence, so time is something you “make” for members. Cohorts, on the other hand, use time as a forcing function. Time is measured by outcomes, not quality. With a cohort, you can be behind schedule, and you can run out of time.

Cohorts compound focus. When a group of people working on separate endeavors all focus on the same frame, the entire group benefits.

Here’s an example from Tachyon. In the first four weeks we have the startups focused on proving their problem, their market, and their solution. That’s 10-15 teams, all running at different problems. Throughout this process the teams remain distinct, but their fluency begins to take on a symmetry. If one team gets deep, the others end up there as well.

A couple ways this might work :

  1. There’s a kind of “focus-osmosis” - every exercise that unlocks value for a single team (i.e. mapping a market, talking to business associations, lean testing, etc.) creates a gravity well of activity from the group. Productive actions spread.

  2. The craft skills become more visible as people look over other teams’ shoulders, imitate, and try to keep up.

  3. Half of thinking well about your businesses is in articulating it well. As each team explores a new angle or a new need, their articulations add to the vocabulary of the group.

Cohorts untangle innovation by committee. Organizations care about cohorts because they short circuit the failure modes of innovating by committee. Cohorts of bets allow a company to bypass the coordination costs that often come from being a company. Cohort thinking incentivizes earlier and smaller attempts at innovation.

Cohorts credentialize through proof-of-work. Last week, Tom wrote about modular, iterative careers. In a world where talent is proven iteratively, cohorts provide the “continual forcing function (“microtests” in Vaughn’s language) to discover, enable and reinforce adding and dropping responsibilities and skills,” while building a network of verifiers for participants.

Cohorts create community. 

On Deck, Day One, and Entrepreneur First are cohort-to-community programs for pre-company founders.

David Perell’s Write of Passage and Tiago Forte’s Building A Second Brain help people systematize and expand their presence in the networked economy through writing and knowledge management cohorts.

Hyperlink Academy creates p2p cohorts of learners around niche, user-driven topics, and cycles them into a community of learner-teachers. 

Finally, cohorts deliver unexpected outcomes. And here’s why you should really care about cohorts - businesses and individuals operating in uncertain environments and looking to do new things (“innovation”) need operating principles that enable and empower new outcomes.

Cohorts - inside the organization, outside the organization - are the operating logic of new things. Cohorts bring more futures within arm’s reach.


This week’s links - views on belonging and becoming.

Bonding and Bridging

From Anita’s newsletter, referenced at the top, a table of belonging:

It’s important for us as individuals to have both bonding and bridging as part of our lives. Without bonding, our sense of belonging is thin. Without bridging, our focus becomes too narrow and exclusionary.

“Mystery knowledge”

One thing I’ve learned with the accelerator, the best outcomes arrive when the founders transforms faster than their businesses. That’s why the secret sauce of any program is the people you bring together into it, and how they transmit “mystery knowledge.”

“Mystery knowledge,” coined by Hillel Wayne, is specific kinds of knowledge or skills that:

  1. You are unlikely to discover on your own, neither through practice and reflection nor by observing others apply it.

  2. Once somebody tells you about it, you can easily learn and apply it.

  3. Once you can use it, it immediately gives you significant benefits, possibly to the point of raising your expertise level.

Cohorts as expectation and preparation

Ethan Mollick, who you should be following on Twitter, shared this study on interfirm relationships and business performance, showing that entrepreneurs who met once a month for deep sessions with other founders showed significant business performance improvements.

Our post-soc future

From the co-matter report on the post-social media era:


This week’s art: Knot 2 by Annie Albers, part of a cohort of artists that went through Black Mountain College.

Before the Big Future, endless little futures.

Brian