Do you want to change how your organization works? Or do you have a burning passion for a specific technology or field of practice you want to share with your colleagues? Establishing a community of practice is a powerful tool to help you connect across silos and spread your ideas far beyond your own formal position and without direct authority.
Communities of practice have many valuable benefits, as Emily Weber points out in Building Successful Communites of Practice:
- Accelerating professional development
- Breaking down organisational silos
- Enabling knowledge sharing
- Building better practice
- Helping to hire and retain staff
- Making people happier
Personally, starting a community inside my organizations has been extremly rewarding and motivating. I’m constatly growing and learning together with wonderful colleagues from all over the organization, whom I didn’t know from before. However, starting a brand new initiative yourself is more challenging than joining an existing, well established community.
Based on my own experience, here are some key lessions I hope will motivate you to start a community inside your own organization.
1. Be open and transparent
We had our first meeting in January 2017 and since then we have had regular meetings one hour every other week. The meetings are open for anyone in the organization. We are currently about 100 members, and about 20-30 people turn up at every meeting.
As people hear about our community through word of mouth, they get curious and want to learn more before they join a meeting. So for them to know more about what we do, I make sure to document our values, purpose, members list and every meeting. We use Confluence, and our page is open for everyone to see and even edit. It takes about 30 minutes to write a short summary after every meeting, and maybe post some pictures. This also makes it possible for other people to add stuff and comment on the discussions, even those who didn’t attend the meeting. We also have an open channel at Slack.
2. Change topics, formats and locations
To grow your community requires courage to try new things, and it can be helpful to look at your community as a social experiment. Our default agenda is to split into groups and do lean coffee, but more often than not, we have workshops, lightening talks, discussions, presentations and other formats that members suggests. Make a survey and ask for feedback.
An eye opener for me was that while some people loved heated discussions with lots of interactions in the open canteen, others were uncomfortable and would much rather listen to presentations in a closed meeting room. Because of the variety of personalities and opinions I realized I would not be able to please everyone. Thus I have to constantly change the meetings to include different people. The same goes for topics. For agile, you have to find the right balance between agile for developers (e.g. continuous delivery and DevOps) and the more “soft” people oriented topics of agile (e.g. collaboration and culture). You can of course choose to pinpoint it down a specific area and smaller group, but since agile transformation requires a change in all parts of the organization, I try to broaden up as much as poossible.
3. Diversity matter – Also in opinions
Diversity in gender, neurodiversity and different social and cultural background has proven to be an important factor in creating innovation and value. The same goes for opinions. The best meetups we have is when someone openly feels safe to raise their concerns or disagree with what is being said.
This may sound weird, but it is important for us that you do not have to agree that agile is a good thing to join our agile community. Respect for different opinions is a crucial part of creating an open learning culture and avoiding groupthink and echo chambers.
The best meetups we have is when someone openly feels safe to raise their concerns or disagree with what is being said.
4. Ask for help
This is one of the many patterns from “Fearless change” that have helped me both run a community and in introducing changes in the projects I’m in.
When I was prevented from hosting a meeting in the last minutes, I asked one of the attendants if he could host the meeting. He said yes, and it went really well. What’s even more amazing is that after that meeting, there suddenly was a summary of what had been discussed up on our Confluence page. Someone had voluntarily, without being asked, stepped up and taken responsibility. I have also had someone else arrange for a social meeting after work, and after asking the community it only took one minute before someone immediately jumped to the task.
By including others and letting them help you out with arrangements, you not just take work off your own shoulders. You expand your network and attract new people to the community. You also make the network less vulnerable by depending on one single leader.
5. Just do it
I often find that we are limited by our mental boundaries of what we think we have permission to do. If you have a great idea you strongly believe in and want to spread across the organization, just make sure the idea aligned with the business goals and you have management support. If your organization values the creativity and passion in their employees, you probably don’t even need all the formal approval you might think you do. One huge advantage of not having a formal mandate is more freedom to explore and try out new experiments as the community grows and takes shape, and less time on reporting and administration.
The next steps
Being a network of people, a community is somewhat fluid and organic. It is therefore impossible to say where our community will be in a year from now. A community requires constant attention and nurturing, so planning and prioritizing the next steps can still be a good idea.
These are the next actions I am currently looking forward to take in order to grow our community:
- Creating a safe to fail environment, where people can openly share failures as well as success stories (we have some examples on agile initiatives that have failed, but it can be a higher bar to share those stories if your company is in the early progress of creating a learning culture)
- Expanding the leadership beyond myself, so that the community is not dependent on only one leader
- Expanding beyond our own organization, sharing experience and learning with other companies