April 23, 2018

Having worked with Communities of Practice (CoP) for more than seven years now, I want to share some findings around their success factors. While the idea (as explained in Management 3.0) is present wherever you look, very often these communities are not effective: Endless debates, no knowledge sharing and low attendance rates are the most common issues I have observed. For example, we started a Scrum Master CoP in a bank with 10+ teams. There was a core of three people who always attended, who saw value in learning and who were open in sharing success and failure stories. The other seven Scrum Masters hardly ever showed up – and when they did, they were not interested in learning or in sharing their ideas.

Getting Attendance Rates Up

If you want to get more people to attend the CoP sessions (note: we are not yet talking about contribution), you need to ensure that people see benefit for themselves. However, what people perceive as benefit varies greatly between individuals. Therefore, you need to find out what motivates people. One way to actually do this and provide value in a CoP session could be by using Moving Motivators. Some people will have the desire to grow their skills (“Mastery”) as one of the major motivators – these people will just show up and engage in the conversation, just like the three Scrum Masters in the example above.

Others might have the urge to show others what they’ve got (“Status”) as the major motivator and need a different approach. For them, it’s not about learning as such, it’s about embodying something they can demonstrate to others and showing a higher level of understanding. Think about gamification (badges, stars, etc.) or define a skill (or even career) model that requires people to undergo certain steps in order to achieve a title or status level for it. Depending on the individual motivators in question, you will have to adjust your approach. No two teams and no two organizations will be the same.

Once people realize that the community of practice gets them ahead with their goals, they will start to show up more regularly. Please note that the important part here is “their goals” – it’s not about what you might personally find motivating. The bait is for the fish, not for the fisherman.

Raising Knowledge Sharing

Sometimes people are reluctant to share their learnings. Learning comes from three areas:

  1. trying something you have never tried before (experiments),
  2. by failing while following the accepted procedure, but still achieving a good outcome, and
  3. doing something as expected but getting an unexpected outcome.

Depending on the organization, it is often frowned upon to try experiments because these are considered costly and messy. Well, they usually are – they are experiments after all. The right question to ask though, is how messy and costly the future will be for your organization if you are not doing experiments already? Unfortunately, this question is not usually asked in this type of organization, therefore people don’t get the chance to realize their mistake. Instead, they carry on avoiding the experiment question, and don’t allow themselves the much needed learning opportunities these experiments would provide.

In other organizations, people are expected to never deviate from the prescribed procedures, so it is almost impossible to gain a second learning experience – and if you dared to, you probably wouldn’t tell anyone. In case your organization is failing on both these counts, by not allowing you to either experiment or to fail due to adherence to prescribed procedures, that only leaves you with the third option: doing something as expected but getting an unexpected outcome. This unfortunately doesn’t happen too often, so the opportunities to learn something are infrequent.

This all boils down to a single message: If you want to engage with people in your CoP who want to learn and to share, you need to create a learning culture. Take a look at your sphere of influence and shape this sphere in a way that fosters trust and allows for mistakes in a safe way. Once people feel safe, they will share. My personal experience is that trust builds with time. Whenever I start sharing success and failure stories, others start to share theirs as well. The more that people share, the more people start jumping in and getting involved.

Ending Endless Debates

Perhaps you have been in CoP meetings where people debate endlessly. This depends very much on the company’s culture, but I have observed one pattern: Whenever you use the CoP to not only learn, but also to make decisions, you generate a conflict of interests. As soon as a decision is involved, people will want to be heard – and they will make themselves heard. Imagine a Scrum Master CoP that is discussing how to improve the level of quality of their products organization-wide: Every team will have different requirements and opinions, all represented by the Scrum Masters now sitting together and trying to get ahead with the topic. A huge discussion is likely to develop, which this group will most probably not be able to solve in a single workshop. Experts, teams, and managers will need to be involved at some point on the road to a decision. If you use the CoP meetings for this, you will throw away the opportunity to learn from one another. Even worse, as soon as you have successfully made one decision, the urge for the next one will come up, leaving you in an unwanted, vicious (decision making) circle.

If you are in a CoP meeting that is dedicated to learning only, there won’t be many debates. Questions and ideas, yes, but no debates. How can you discuss the learning somebody else had? You can have a different learning, you might have a suggestion for a future experiment, but you won’t have one of these endless debates, because nobody will feel the need to “be right”. Therefore, my recommendation for you is to clearly separate learning and decision-making. When in decision-making mode, first agree on the common goal and then engage a capable facilitator to keep everybody on the same page.

Summing It Up

My key learnings with Communities of Practice are:

  1. find out what motivates the attendees and create an environment that helps them see their own individual benefit
  2. create a safe-to-fail environment in your sphere of influence and lead by example in sharing your own failure stories
  3. clearly separate learning from decision-making

Do you have other experiences? What is your key learning? Please share it with us through the comments below.

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