Communities of Practice

Many larger companies are following the lead of companies like Spotify’s to create engineer led communities, sometimes called Guilds. The concept is simple, and very good. Creating a cross team culture of engineering excellence to drive best practice forward among employees sounds like a brilliant idea. In this post I’m going to discuss my experience of working with Communities of Practice and my thoughts on their true value.

Companies usually start a CoP initiative when they want to engineers to take ownership of:

  • Defining Standards and Best Practice
  • Training and developing it’s members
  • Breaking down Silos around teams
  • Hiring and building a better team

It sounds great right?

As with most things the reaslity isn’t quite as straightforward as that.

Teams collaborating and self directing through Communities of Practice is a hard, but powerful concept. Photo by Canva Studio on Pexels.com

As anyone who reads my blog may pick up I enjoy a little amateur psychology, I believe it helps me in my role as a team manager. One of the things I’m acutely aware is the tribe mentality of scrum teams, when people get so focused behind their products they often find it difficult to see other teams as allies – too often they’re seen as impediments to deliveries or competing products. Forming a Community of Practice asks people to shift their focus and split it away from their scrum teams to think as a wider team. It can be hard to sit with two hats on!

So, how do you get started?

There’s a very good book by Emily Webber called Building Successful Communities of Practice which outlines a very good approach. She talks about a Community Maturity Model which outlines various objectives the forming community should aim to hit as they grow. By splitting out into distinct Potential, Forming, Maturing, and Self Sustaining phases. It’s important to realise that giving someone a goal and letting them go is not enough to build a Community of Practice.

With CoPs I’ve helped develop it’s crucial to start with a small group of engaged people who set goals and achieve them. Using these successes and achievements as an example to recruit more members and take on more ambitious goals. You can force dozens of people to join a meeting but you won’t get engagement, you want to be able to hold up what the community has achieved, show it off, advertise it, and ask other people if they would help deliver the next goal.

Communities should set their own goals. They need the ability to ask their members what work is needed and the autonomy to be able to go and make it happen. Otherwise they’re simply a vehicle for management to share project work between teams.

Finally, these formative and fragile communities need real organisational support. They need people to have goals set around forming the community, these people need time (I recommend setting the expectation of a day a week out of regular team duties), they also need a discretionary budget. Breakfast, coffee, prizes, and events go a long way to getting people in the door to hear what you want to achieve and once you’ve got them a social budget is a great way to help those cross team relationships form!

If you’ve been involved in Community of Practices or “Guilds” as they’re sometimes known let me know. What advice would you give to someone who wants to form them in their organisation?

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