Starting an Agile Center of Excellence

Photo by Stuart Rankin

Photo by Stuart Rankin

Let me first say: I don't love the name "Center of Excellence." This is not about starting a group that has a monopoly on excellence or good ideas with an organization. Just the opposite--this is an entity that helps the organization become more excellent, which includes spotting internal excellence and promoting it.

Regardless of what you call it, an Agile Center of Excellence is meant to be a helpful, consultative group. Not a strict instrument of governance or compliance. While the group may help define mechanisms to promote transparency about product and team health, there is real danger in a COE becoming the internal compliance police.

Digging in further to the idea that an Agile Center of Excellence is a helpful, consultative group that helps an organization become more excellent, the vision of this entity is important. I've found it helpful to use an elevator statement format and Jason Little's strategic change canvas to gain alignment on the group's mission.

Another big challenge in starting an Agile COE is defining success criteria. What are the measurable results you are seeking? Why is this group being established? We often start thinking about the activities or services the COE will provide and how to measure them. I think of those services as the how. Measurements of these activities are our leading measures. I urge you to go deeper: what are the business outcomes wanted that are fostering the COE's genesis? The really important stuff that's probably harder to measure and will take longer to change: increased customer satisfaction, cost savings, more revenue, shorter time to market, etc. What is the reason for agile in the organization?

Why is it so important to define success criteria like this? It hinges on changes from people outside of the Agile Center of Excellence, which feels risky. And it is. Because it means that the Agile Center of Excellence is connected to the organization and must respond to its needs. The COE's success points to the why of the organization's change. I find that it enables--perhaps requires--the Center of Excellence to change, evolve, and pivot its offerings in order to continue helping the organization. It allows for agility by the group, which I think is important for those wishing to further enable agility. How cool would it be to see more Agile Centers of Excellence like that?

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Starting a Community of Practice or User Group - Planning Events

Photo by Miguel Pires da Rosa

Photo by Miguel Pires da Rosa

You recruited some other leaders, and now it’s time to plan the first event for your user group or community of practice!  You might consider scheduling your first three events at different times or locations.  This will give people with various schedules a chance to participate.  You can assess the attendance at each.  Select locations that are well known, safe, and easy to find.  Do not feel obligated to pay for each event—gather at restaurants or places where each person can pay for himself or find a sponsor.

In scheduling the first events, think of activities that are too interesting to miss.  What is the biggest challenge in your community?  What topics are people curious about?  Who would you love to hear speak?  Don’t allow events to be thought of as "just another thing to do.” Provide value early on and learn more about what people want.  Many people are willing to speak to user groups and communities of practice, so go ahead and ask them nicely.  I’ve sent emails to folks I have never met, and people usually respond promptly and happily because they are flattered to have been asked.  You may be pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to arrange for presenters.

Just like a rocket leaving Earth’s atmosphere, the group will need a great concentration of energy at the beginning and less energy once it has achieved momentum. To keep the group on track, its leadership will need to consider these themes:

  • Meet the needs of your members – Communities of practice and user groups survive solely for the benefit of their members.  Keep trying to improve upon your successes and always be willing to innovate.  If lunch meetings are not working, try breakfast or dinner meetings.  Are the members too spread out?  Try forming subgroups that meet in different areas.  Bring value to your members, and your membership numbers will never suffer.
  • Attract and develop new leaders – Continually successful communities of practice have great leaders and foster the development of future leaders.  Create opportunities for members to be involved in supporting your events, like co-presenting or facilitating a meeting. Identify members who can bring their leadership talents to the community of practice to plan and execute future events.
  • Communicate often, clearly, and consistently – You will be competing for the attention of your members and must be diligent in keeping your activities in the forefront of their minds.  Hold events regularly and advertise them in advance. Consider creating a website or blog to communicating often, clearly, and consistently

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Starting a Community of Practice or User Group - Recruiting People

Photo by SHOTbySUSAN

Photo by SHOTbySUSAN

I’ve started a number of groups over the years—from communities of practice in organizations to public user groups and membership-based clubs—and I try to keep them as simple as possible to run. The most important step to take when forming a user group or community of practice is to just do it—efforts often fail because people feel like the new group must initially have a large participating membership.  Growth will probably be slow.  My guiding philosophy when starting a user group or community of practice is simply, “If you build it, they will come.”

The first step in organizing a user group or community of practice is forming a core group of leaders.  Consider the skill areas that you need help with and recruit others to fill those needs.  Some people are very social and outgoing but lack follow-through on tasks; others are great at getting things done but may be awkward socially.  What are your strengths?  Who can help you in areas where you are weak?  And who are you happy to spend time with?  Regardless of how many people show up to an event, you’ll be with the core group a lot, so pick people you want to see.  Leading a community of practice or user group is often a volunteer position, and you’ll want it to be fun and rewarding. 

Your group will probably remain rather small for a while—it takes patience.  Generally, the attendance at the first events is less than desired and may be disheartening.  This is natural, and hopefully you have other leaders to help keep your spirits up during this phase.  The core group that is active will remain small (less than 10).  You will have others that come and go, but not be part of the core group that is consistently there.  The smaller the time commitment, the larger the core group might be.

Past experience has shown that the two actions which produce the best results are to (1) start having events and to (2) tell the maximum number of people when and where these events are being held.  Every time someone new attends an event, take the time to get to know him.  I recently saw a fraternity brother at a conference that I first met at a local alumni event years ago—it was great to have had that connection established and share a new common bond!  If I hadn’t formed that group after I graduated from college, I never would have made that connection.  That’s why I love creating communities.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.