Building a Community

A few months ago we had the idea to try and build a Community of Practice for one of our teams. After a short trial I wanted to reflect on how we got started, how things went and a few things I learnt along the way.

Have a plan

Setting expectations helps people to feel at ease with something new, different or generally unknown. For those of us setting this up, this was also a new experience for us so it was important to make sure we had some structure in place. To create our plan we discussed the following aspects:

What is a community of practice?

  • A self-selecting group with a common interest or purpose
  • Members can come and go and have different levels of participation at different times
  • The community only exists for as long as its members want it to exist
  • A community is a place to support each other

What was our  purpose?

  • To create something that was passion led, not role led
  • To give people explicit permission (time) to join and participate
  • To give individuals the space to discuss things that they cared about, not what management cared about

How would people be expected to participate?

  • Individuals put forward ideas for discussion that other individuals could join so everyone can see the levels of interest for each topic
  • People choose their involvement and move between levels of participation at any time depending on their own interests or motivations.
  • People who choose to be at the core of the community identified themselves as people who would be prepared to take on extra responsibilities
  • People who choose to be active members would attend events but not facilitate or be expected to prepare anything beforehand
  • People who choose to be on the peripheral had an interest in knowing what was going on but didn’t wanted to actively participate

What do we need to do as a group?

  • Set up a way to communicate with each other
  • Have rules of engagement
  • Agree on a time for these meetups to take place

Are there any other things of note?

  • The venue doesn’t have to be within the confines of the office, getting offsite is encouraged
  • We would have self-nominated support people to help people along the way with any questions or concerns
  • There is no right or wrong, experiment!

Having this defined and available for people to refer to allowed a foundation for us to start with. We also wanted to make it very clear that things can change to adapt to the needs of the group and that we would trial the idea for 4 weeks. This meant that if it wasn’t valuable we could throw it away early on without too much investment.

Be fearless and treat everything as an experiment.

People are complex and are emotionally driven. For this to be successful we had to appeal to our basic need of wanting to feel safe. This couldn’t be something that would be seen as a failure if it didn’t work. Right from the start we talked about giving things a go, being open to the possibility of failure and making sure that if that happened, it was ok.

We treated our community with as much autonomy as possible allowing people to make their own decisions about what topics they put forward and which topics they went to. If someone didn’t want to go to a topic, that was ok. If someone went to a topic and they found it wasn’t for them, leaving was perfectly acceptable too. We made these ideas explicit and set that expectation right from the start.   

By removing the idea of right or wrong people felt empowered to take action and try something new. This year we ended up having a Secret Santa morning tea off the back of one of our community topics which had never happened for our team before. At the end of it, people were grateful to just see each other and connect in a different way.

People will surprise you

Before we started, I had made a lot of the usual assumptions, some of which proved to be completely wrong. By giving our team explicit permission and time to attend our community topics I thought this would remove the ‘I’m too busy’ excuse. I thought, how could they be busy, we’ve received permission from our entire department to spend allocated time on this! It turns out that people can make themselves busy if they are not interested in the topic put forward, which was ok. By allocating agreed time, people started being more honest, time wasn’t really the issue, content was. On the other hand, other people were complaining about there being too much choice each week and feeling frustrated at missing out on topics because they were being held at the same time.

When we first started we apologized many times for the frequency of our allocated time being weekly, the ghost of meetings past singing that oh so familiar tune of ‘too many meetings’. At our final review we broached the subject of frequency of meetings and to my surprise everyone seemed fine with the weekly frequency. This seemed to work because people could pick and choose, knowing that if they missed this week or weren’t interested in a particular topic there was always next week.

Perhaps the most interesting observation, and this is something I have been noticing more and more often, is that the people who complain the most, don’t take advantage of the opportunity given to them. In our earlier discussions, there had been a number of people who complained about the lack of community, some of those people didn’t turn up to a single event or put a topic forward. Knowing who these people are is useful information and by making everything self-selecting, we avoided wasting energy on trying to help people who didn’t want to help themselves

Self selection takes time

Straight off the bat, we were explicit that this community was by the team, for the team. There would be no one telling anyone else what to do, everything was up for review and hierarchy didn’t exist. There was one person we called a moderator that took care of administration activities such as updating the ideas board, emailing people with general information and sending out reminders.

For topics to go forward, a ‘Champion’ had to self-select themselves to drive the discussion. This person had to care enough about the topic for it to go forward and then organise the venue, duration and document any artifacts that could be shared with the wider community.

My thoughts were that this would be easy because the people who put forward the topics would be willing to champion them, however this wasn’t the case. During our first week individuals were shoulder tapped to be champions as people weren’t putting themselves forward. This wasn’t our intent although we didn’t want things to fail in the first week! Realising that this wasn’t going to be sustainable and went against our original purpose, the second week we did nothing. And we waited. And waited. No one put their hand up to be a champion until the day when we announced that there would be no community this week due to a lack of champions. We also reiterated that if no one was going to make this happen, we wouldn’t make it happen as organisers. It seemed we had all gotten so used to ‘someone else’ making something succeed. When that didn’t happen, other people started to step up. The reality of something being taken away couldn’t be an idle threat, we had to stick to our values.

For people to self-select themselves, they have to be given the space in which to do so, even if that means things get very close to failing. By removing the safety net of ‘someone else will do it’, people who cared about the idea started to drive things forward.

Continually review and adapt as needed  

Even in our first meeting there were things that needed to change. There were areas of ambiguity that I hadn’t articulated such as how we were going to record topics or the function of the champion. Reviewing everything early on and allowing people to contribute to the solution rather than going straight in with everything sorted out, gave people space to contribute. It also avoided making this ‘my’ thing that I was just telling everyone about.

We had purposely provided a framework to be built upon that still had questions that needing answering and problems that needed solving. As future problems came up, such as the communication of meeting venues and times, people communicated and made changes themselves, without asking for permission and because it was in the interests of the group.

We’ve only done a short trial but the group has found value in what we’ve done so it will continue again next year where I hope it continues to evolve as it needs to.  

Starting a community of practice has brought people together and I’ve seen a change in our group. People have started to be thankful for each other and are more hopeful about the future and the positive changes that future could bring. Being able to connect with other people that care about what I care about has motivated me to keep going and not give up at the first hurdle because I know there’s someone else who wants to try as much as I do.

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