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

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.

Learning and Change Go Hand-in-Hand

Photo by *Psycho Delia*

Photo by *Psycho Delia*

Agile starts with and thrives on learning.  Teams are often introduced to agile frameworks like scrum in training classes, and they adopt practices over time.  The team is learning as a group, and we want to ignite a passion for learning in the individual team members.  Each team member will be going through change at some point in the agile journey—they will probably experience change multiple times rather than as a single occurrence—and a self-motivated interest in learning can facilitate change.  A person going through change is like a trapeze artist: you have to risk letting go of the bar and allow yourself to be suspended in space as you try something new.  And then, with relief and excitement, you find yourself able to grab onto a new bar—you have made the change!  It can be scary to take the leap for change, and a safety net might not always be visible. 

Getting comfortable with change is hard, and as I see it, change and learning go hand in hand.  Change might sound scary while learning seems safer.  An agile team “reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjustsits behavior accordingly.”  The team identifies changes that can be made and tries them; it learns new ways of working, new technologies, new techniques to deliver high quality products… change and learning are continuous.  The team culture includes learning.  When learning ceases, the ability to adapt to change decreases.  Teams become stuck in their ways, conflict increases, and complacency settles in.  Don't let your rituals become ruts.  Agile teams do not arrive at a destination; the goal is not to improve to a point of maturity or high performance and then maintain the status quo.  In the words of Flannery O’Connor:

Accepting oneself does not preclude an attempt to become better.

As an agile coach and consultant, I am often brought in to organizations to jump-start and facilitate change.  I look for signs of learning in the organization to design the engagement and evaluate success.  If people in the organization are open to learning, then anything is possible.  I can provide training, mentoring, and coaching to incite positive change.  In the end, I hope people realize that success is not in what they know, but in their capacity to learn.

How to Communicate and Recognize Appreciation

Photo by jen collins

Photo by jen collins

Cherie and I presented at the UT Dallas Project Management Symposium this week, and it was a lot of fun.  We once again presented Beyond Removing Impediments: Scrum Master as Team Coach and also had the opportunity to do a second session on Motivating People Through the Language of Appreciation.  It was our first time presenting that topic, and the positive feedback was tremendous.  Then again, when you're talking to people for an hour about appreciation, they know how to practice it when you're done.  ;-)

Honestly though, feeling appreciated is rare for many people--70% of employees say they receive no praise at work.  That hurts the individuals and the organization.  People who are undervalued are less likely to go above and beyond at work and they are more likely to leave for another job.  Here's the real kicker: your organization might be trying to show some appreciation for employees, but they are not recognizing it!

Each one of us has certain things that we look for that tell us we are valued by others--different reference points that tell us, “I value and appreciate you.”  When people speak to us in the way that speaks value and appreciation to them--and it is different than they way we say it--we don’t receive the message.  Why?  Because we don’t recognize that they are saying it.  For example, a manager might give an employee a gift card in recognition of his hard work and long hours in completing a project successfully, but the employee sees it as an empty gesture because he would really like someone to tell him how valuable he is to the organization.

We speak different languages of appreciation, and understanding the different languages of appreciation helps others to receive what you are trying to offer them.  If we can understand the language we are expecting to hear and how others might possibly be expressing appreciation and value, then we can both send and perceive the appropriate messages.

The 5 languages of appreciation are:

1.     Quality Time – Quality time includes focused attention and quality conversation.  A person who speaks this language feels valued when they perceive that someone displays a genuine interest in them.  This language focuses on hearing the person receiving the quality time and about participating in the conversation with them.  Quality time also includes a sharing of life together.  So, working side by side or going to lunch together also qualifies as quality time.  

2.     Words of Affirmation – Words of affirmation include specific words of encouragement or praise for accomplishment and for effort.  It includes saying, “thank you.”  Words of affirmation can be given one on one, in front of someone the person views as important (such as a supervisor or the team), or publicly.  This appreciation language focuses on the words being said to the person receiving the words of affirmation, and it is about them and their contributions or character traits that are valuable and appreciated. Can be written, verbal, or in some other format including music, video, etc.  The important thing is the message of praise and encouragement communicated.

3.     Receiving Gifts – Receiving gifts is the vehicle for some individuals that sends the message that says, “You are valuable to me and I thought about you when you weren’t with me because I appreciate you.”  The dollar value of the gift is not what is significant but the emotional thought about the person that drove the gift to be given.  For people who speak this language, the gift becomes tangible evidence that they are valued.  It is a constant reminder that they are appreciated.   

4.     Acts of Service – Acts of service is characterized by helping with tasks that need to be completed.  Some might call this teamwork.  Some key things to remember with acts of service are:

  • Get your own work finished before offering to help someone with theirs
  • Ask before helping
  • Make sure to do it their way if you are going to help
  • Finish what you commit to do and make it clear what you can commit to finish

5.     Physical Contact – Physical contact in the workplace is a touchy subject. (Pardon the pun) The truth is that for some people this is the language that speaks the loudest to them that they are truly valued and appreciated.  The key is to understand what is appropriate and acceptable and to adhere to those guidelines.  Depending on the culture of the organization there will be different guidelines but for most handshakes, knuckle bumps, high-fives, or even a pat on the shoulder are acceptable.

Seven Facts about Adult Learning

Photo by Enokson

Photo by Enokson

  1. Groups learn faster than individuals
  2. An individual’s commitment is proportionate to personal investment in design
  3. Highly cohesive groups influence each other more than non-cohesive groups
  4. People will be more motivated when they know goals and format
  5. The learner is responsible for learning
  6. People have to see practical connection
  7. An appeal to emotions is by far the most effective way to capture attention and memory

Terminology: Technical Debt

Photo by Anton Bielousovt

Photo by Anton Bielousovt

I realize that the idea of technical debt is already a metaphor, but I’ve found that it often comes with a stigma that bad decisions were made in the past, which is not always the case. And people sometimes don’t understand the severity of the technical debt that is accumulating in their systems. It's not just developers who should care about technical debt.

As another way of explaining technical debt, I’ve been thinking about the game Twister. In each turn of the game, the player has to make a decision about how to place his hands or feet on the colored dot that the spinner has indicated. Similarly, developers decide the architecture/design to use as they implement features. Early on in the game and in a new software project, these decisions are relatively simple. You tell the player to put his right-hand on red, and he can do this fairly easily.

But as the game continues, the decisions become more difficult. The player is contorted on the board, making his position more difficult to move from. His previous decisions were not necessarily bad, but it is challenging to make the next move.  Similarly in software, the architecture and designs used were not necessarily wrong, but they do not enable delivery of future features. For that reason, the player/developers must “refactor” the state they are in. 

And if the position that the player finds himself in does not get refactored to a more stable state, then he eventually falls down and loses. Game over. We do not want this for our software systems either—it is the point where we declare technical bankruptcy. Pay off technical debt early.

Facilitating Great Sprint Retrospectives

Photo by AlienGraffiti

Photo by AlienGraffiti

Last month's DFW Scrum user group meeting was on Overcoming the fear of Sprint Retrospective.  I love retrospectives, so I was excited that the group was going to talk about them for an entire night.  Here's why the topic was suggested:

Sprint Retrospective is by far the most underutilized and under appreciated meeting. Team members dread to go these meetings. Every Scrum Master has his own technique on how he overcame this and still there is always room to grow. Can we request a retro meeting please? Where we can share some thoughts on how different Scrum Masters of our group handle it & has seen success? :)  Thanks

I agree that retrospectives are probably the most powerful and most underutilized ceremonies in scrum.  And I think it's because most people don't know how to facilitate them well.  Excellent retrospective facilitators know how to instill trust for openness and sharing, inspire creativity and brainstorming to generate new ideas, read the room to pick up on what’s not being said, handle conflict in a positive manner, maintain the timebox, and guide group decision-making.  How do you learn to do all of that?  Below is a lunch and learn presentation that outlines the format of retrospectives with some tips and tricks:

Great retrospectives don't just happen--they are the result of good planning and facilitation.  Thankfully following scrum means a facilitator gets an opportunity to practice his skills each sprint!

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.  I recommend creating communities of practice, but 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 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.  There is a sense that excellence comes from applying the same behaviors and practices across teams.  Maybe a center of excellence is a good starting point for an organization, but communities of practice hold more possibility for learning and applying of practices.

Am I saying that a community of practice is better than a center of excellence?  In my opinion, yes.  There’s goodness in sharing experiences and ideas as peers that comes from being part of a community.  The safety of community allows for deeper sharing and exploring of ideas.  Communities of practice 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

The differences between a center of excellence and a community of practice in your organization might not be as black and white as I describe them, but many organizations that I’ve seen are more comfortable creating centers of excellence than communities of practice.  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.   Go ahead: embrace community.

Upcoming Speaking Events

Photo by Harmon

Photo by Harmon

I'm excited to share that there are quite a few agile events coming up in Texas where I will be speaking!  I continue to be amazed at the strength of the agile community, and I look forward to meeting new people and seeing old faces.

  • Dallas Agile Leadership Network - July 29, 2014 - I will be co-presenting with Ty Crockett on Creating Strong and Passionate Communities of Practice
  • 8th Annual UTDallas Project Management Symposium - August 14-15, 2014 - I will be co-presenting two topics with Cherie SilasBeyond Removing Impediments: Scrum Master as Team Coach and Motivating People through the Language of Appreciation
  • AgileDotNext in Houston, TX - August 22, 2014 - I will be co-presenting two topics: Beyond Removing Impediments: Scrum Master as Team Coach with Cherie Silas and Creating Strong and Passionate Communities of Practice with Ty Crockett
  • PMI Professional Development Day in Fort Worth, TX - September 12, 2013 - I will be co-presenting Motivating People through the Language of Appreciation with Cherie Silas
  • Houston TechFest - September 13, 2014 - I will be co-presenting two topics with Cherie Silas: Change Your Questions Change Your World and Beyond Removing Impediments: Scrum Master as Team Coach

What upcoming events are you excited about?

Should you always hold teams sacred?

Photo by sophiadphotography

Photo by sophiadphotography

When an organization adopts agile, there is typically a shift to forming cross-functional and self-organizing teams.  Create persistent teams.  Bring the work the team.  It takes time to reach high performance, so don’t disrupt the team.  Hold the team sacred because team members will learn, grow, and challenge one another in the safety that the team provides.

But what about teams that have been together for a long time and are not actively learning, growing, or challenging one another?  That are not striving for high performance?  The ones that are mired in destructive conflict?  What do you do when complacency has set in?

I vote for disruption.

Change the work and what success looks like.  Change the people.  Change the environment.  Change processes or communication to the team.  Don’t change everything, but please change something!

Agile is about teams that are striving for high performance. For excellence.  What does that look like?  I like Lyssa Adkins’s high performance tree metaphor:

How do your teams rate?  Are they striving for high performance or ripe for disruption?