A community of interest needs a common focus!

A community of interest needs a common focus!

All community of practices (COP) are not successful or at least don’t stay successful.  While there can many issues that cause a COP to fail, there are three very typical problems that kill off COPs.

  1. Poor leadership – All groups have a leader that exerts influence on the direction of the group. The best COP leaders I have observed (best being defined in terms of the health of the COP) are servant leaders.  In a community of practice, the servant leader will work to empower and serve the community. Empowerment of the COP is reflected by the removing of impediments and coaching the team so it meets its goals of connection, encouragement and sharing.  In COPs with a poor leader the goals of the group generally shift towards control of the message or to the aggrandizement of specific group or person.  Earlier in my career I was involved with a local SPIN (software process improvement network) group that had existed for several years.  The SPIN group was a community of practice that drew members form 20 – 30 companies in my area. At one point a leader emerged whose goal was to generate sales leads for himself.  Membership fell precipitously before a new leader emerged and re-organized the remnants.
  2. Lack of a common interest – A group put together without a common interest reminds me of sitting in the back of station wagon with my four siblings on long Sunday drives in the country.  Not exactly pointless but to be avoided if possible.  A community of practice without a common area of interest isn’t a community of practice.
  3. Natural life cycle – Ideas and groups have a natural life cycle.  When a COP purpose passes or fades, the group should either be re-purposed or shutdown. As an example, the SPIN mentioned above reached its zenith during the heyday of the CMMI and faded as that framework became less popular. I have often observed that as a COP’s original purpose wanes the group seeks to preserve itself by finding a new purpose. Re-purposing often fails because the passion the group had for the original concept does not transfer.  Re-purposing works best when the ideas being pursued are a natural evolutionary path.  I recently observed a Scrum Master COP that was in transition. Scrum was institutionalized within the organization and there was a general feeling that the group had run its course unless something was done to energize the group. The group decided to begin exploring Scaled Agile Framework as a potential extension of their common interest in Agile project and program management.

In general, a community of practice is not an institution that lasts forever. Idea and groups follow a natural life cycle.  COPs generally hit their zenith when members finally get the most benefit from sharing and connecting.  The amount of benefit that a member of the community perceives they get from participation is related to the passion they have for the group. As ideas and concepts become mainstream or begin to fade, the need for a COP can also fade. As passion around the idea fades, leaders can emerge that have other motives than serving the community which hastens the breakdown of the COP. When the need to a COP begins to fade, generally it is time to disband or re-purpose the COP.

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