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.

The Differences Between a Community of Practice and a Center of Excellence

Photo by Celestine Chua

Photo by Celestine Chua

If you are working in an organization, you might be thinking about how to share practices across agile teams.  Agile teams inspect and adapt over time, using retrospectives in particular to change their behaviors and practices with the goal of improving.  A team improving is great, and it would be awesome for that team to share what they’ve learned so that others can benefit.  To encourage good practices across teams, organizations often establish centers of excellence or communities of practice.  What's the difference?

Communities of practice are groups of people with similar interests who share experiences with a common goal of improving.  People talk to one another and learn from each other.  All levels of expertise are welcomed, and all experiences can provide learning.  A community of practice can work together to solve a problem and adopt a common solution if the community agrees to do so.

In contrast, a center of excellence often implies that a smaller group recommends (or even requires) certain practices or templates be used.  The leaders of the center of excellence have authority.  Experience sharing may not be welcomed if it is not aligned with the leaders’ views.  This is unfortunate because it limits the organizational learning and stems from a belief that excellence comes from applying the same behaviors and practices across teams.  An agile center of excellence does not have to be this way! It is entirely possible to start an agile center of excellence that serves the greater organization by connecting people and ideas for better business outcomes.

There’s goodness in sharing experiences and ideas as peers.  The safety of community naturally allows for deeper sharing and exploring of ideas.  A good center of excellence can also support adult learning and promote ownership of ideas—what’s not to love about that? 

"Tell me, and I forget. Teach me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I learn." --Benjamin Franklin

Many organizations that I’ve seen are more comfortable creating centers of excellence for consistency and governance purposes, which is unfortunate.  Leaders feel assurance that only the best practices will be spread through centers of excellence.  Self-organizing communities are unpredictable and rely on some experimentation to encourage learning.  And that's precisely where the goodness lives.  Centers of excellence can help connect ideas from those experiments to other teams and support cross-pollination too.

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.