How do you build a ‘community of practice’ without a ‘community’ that practices?

I’m really asking.



a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common.

Not for the first time I find myself in a role where part of my responsibility is to support the development of some folk who are relatively early stage in their product and agile delivery careers (if not their careers as a whole – another not uncommon trait).

There are a few differences this time though.

  1. The cohort is small. A single product person and two agile delivery managers. It isn’t even that these are just the people I am working with – they are the only examples of these roles, in this shape, in the (large) organisation
  2. The wider team is not – in the purest sense – a delivery team. It is a very broad church design team that does amazing work but the rhythm and actions are unusual for me 
  3. This little COVID thing is still hanging around which rather blocks some of my go-to plans

I mean it is easier these days than it would have been a few years ago – to some extent the perennial problem of all the product and agile resources being less than appropriate for public service practitioners has been resolved by the great work of the international digital government community and former stalwarts now carving out a living as consultants/contractors. Hard earned lessons and insights have been synthesised, documented and shared (work in the open, it makes things better) and cross pollination from other enterprise approaches has only helped. [agile reading list / product reading list]

So the materials are out there but these ways of working are best learned by doing…and then sharing with peers, reflecting and iterating. No peers? No progress.

There is also the X-Gov Slack out there still fighting the good fight but given its scale and the dominance of central gov there I wonder if it is a bit intimidating these days and more noticeboard than community sometimes? 

What will happen to things like (Local)Govcamp etc? These in-person communities have been a huge part of my career but I’m not sure of their role post-COVID.

I love the idea (well I love the reality!) of the ‘ the Ether’ online events that emerged from Emily’s original ‘Agile in the Ether’ events and will be trying to get them involved there but at the moment I am not sure about the wider shift of conferences and meet-ups online. The reality is the benefit of many of these gatherings was bringing people together in person, in a space, where they had freed up the time to be there. For me – and I know I am not the user – it was always about the corridor track. The reality is there is usually a better produced Podcast or Youtube version of talks on the same topics if you aren’t ‘there’. 

I also don’t want to burden people with expectations for doing stuff ‘out of hours’ (though these days what is that for many people!)

One thing I am trying to do is identify and shape the right kinds of projects where they get the opportunities to put what they learn into to practice and really stretch themselves….with me there as a safety net. 

This isn’t straightforward though due to the type of work we mainly undertake so I’ve been thinking about a kind of ‘small practices, loosely joined’ approach. Identifying elements of the agile and product playbooks that can be isolated, implemented and improved as discrete activities while still adding value wherever you might introduce them.

I’ve always pushed ‘looking sideways’ and getting out there visiting and shadowing other practitioners and teams. Obviously this is pretty much a thing of the past for the immediate future but maybe the Zoom-iverse opens an opportunity for more 1-2-1 peer conversations across organisations, sectors and countries? I have a network I can lean into. Will these short conversations really support the kind of open conversations that add real value though?

As I have said on numerous occasions I am no fan of the certifications around agile and product but should I put my prejudices aside for the good of the team? The Futurelean Product course is interesting and I don’t hate some of the BCS Agile stuff. These things kind of come with a ready made community of peers after all.

I’m wondering if this isn’t that unusual across the public service internet. Are there singleton product managers or agile folk at charities, local authorities and colleges? Is identifying and supporting that network the answer (that seems like a stretch for my current role but god knows I love a side project!)

At the moment I have weekly 1-2-1s with each of the team but some of that time is about pastoral care (more important than ever these days) and some, inevitably, ends up being a catch-up on projects (despite my efforts to avoid this) so the time to discuss development is limited.

I’ve been considering a different approach where the 1-2-1s focus on the pastoral and day-to-day and additionally I clear space in my calendar for ‘office hours’ that can be specifically focused on learning and development of the team. This might also help the team feel more comfortable protecting time for reading, watching and reflecting.

Gosh that is a brain dump isn’t it! If you got this far (a) well done and (b) how do or would you approach something like this?

At least one enquiring mind wants to know!

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One response to “How do you build a ‘community of practice’ without a ‘community’ that practices?”

  1. Hey Matt, goooood questions and well set out. Got me thinking.

    A couple of more … fragmented, I guess? approaches I’ve tried or heard about look at a small, low-effort but high-trust/emotional safety setup. (Neither of these are perfect or canonical, of course, but might be useful case studies.)

    One approach was to ask a few people that you trust professionally if they’d be willing to join a closed-circle group, eg on Signal etc. This, in theory, could then be a place to draw on other people’s experience or opinions.

    The second approach was to have roughly the same small set of people, but to meet up regularly (every month or two, say) and discuss what projects everyone’s been up to – with a bit more structure, eg everyone must give an update (20 minutes) even if you haven’t made any progress.

    In both cases I think it does help to know the other people – or to take a little while to build up that familiarity. Face-to-face chats at the start, introductions, small exercises first, etc – anything to get people comfortable, humble/listening, and on a level playing field. There is scope to cross-pollinate by bringing in people outside of that ‘circle’ I think, but you as the host would need to manage that with a bit more care.

    Oddly I see this more in creative groups, maybe mentoring and guidance is more status quo when ‘publishing a piece’ is involved? Is there a difference between mentoring group creativity vs a community of practice? Do the people you’re working with see their job as a creative endeavour, or just a responsibility?

    Or maybe it depends on their own learning style – are they hungry for information and ideas (in which case your own network could act as a source of resources), or are they more confused and not even sure what to ask (in which case maybe the ‘looking sideways’ aspect might help gt some perspective?)

    Let us know how you get on, it’s definitely an interesting area.

    I think that

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