Book Review: Building Successful Communities of Practice

Summary: Emily Weber’s book “Building Successful Communities of Practice” is a fast and easy read and gives you a hands-on guide to building one on your own. Emily sharing a lot of good practices and pitfalls. I loved to see how the communities develop through stages like Tuckman’s stages of group development.

Last year I was part of a group of people having the same role, Product Owners. We met every week for an hour to discuss some topic someone added to an agenda. First, I was actually very happy that there was an agenda, but soon, I realized the meeting got canceled often because nobody came up with a topic to talk about. There was no purpose to meet regularly and no leadership to keep the meeting running.

I thought it was fine if we skip the meeting almost every week when the only thing connecting us is the role and the product we care about.
But then I listened to a podcast episode of Emily Webber on The Product Experience about her book “Building Successful Communities of Practice” and I realized we are missing a big opportunity by skipping the meeting.

Shortly after listening to the podcast I bought the book and read it immediately. It gives you hands-on instruction on how to start a community of practice and how to keep it running. It gives you examples of pitfalls and how to handle them.

In summary, it’s an awesome book in case you are looking for a way to establish personal growth, networking, and learning from each other in your organization.

What is a Community of Practice, why do you need it, and how to start?

Communities of practice

… are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.

Etienne Wenger-Trayner and Beverly Wenger-Trayner

They have a lot of benefits. Mainly, they can help you to

… support organisational learning, accelerate professional development of their members, enable knowledge sharing and management, support better communication, build better practices, make people happier, break down silos, and help with hiring and retention or staff.

Emily Webber

When you are interested in starting a community of practice you need to make sure that the group

… can meet regularly, has the right community leadership, creates a ‘safe to learn’ environment’, and gets support from your organization.

Emily Webber

My key learnings from the book

Next to the clear definition of a community of practice and the difference to other communities, I learned three major things.

First, it doesn’t make sense to create a community based on the role the people have in the organization, e.g. all Product Owners. As mentioned in the definition, it’s better to focus on the passion you are sharing and probably this also means different roles are coming together.

Second, before you start recruiting people for your community of practice think about the purpose. Why do you want to start the community? What is the vision? Why are you inviting these specific people? How will you work together and what will you do? Having answers to these questions upfront helps you to keep people motivated, engaged, and aligned. It’s also better to start with a smaller group to focus on the passion and purpose of the community.

Third, building the community kind of follows Tuckman’s stages of group development:

Forming – Storming – Norming – Performing

Just reminding, in the forming phase, the group is getting together. In storming the groups finds boundaries, and conflicts may arise. In the norming phase, the group builds up trust and a rhythm is gained. During the performing stage, the group takes responsibility for itself.

For communities of practice, the different stages are shown in the picture below. You can also download the maturity model here.

The image shows the five stages of a community of practice. They are matching Tuckman's stages of group development.
Stages of community building [Emily Webber]

What surprised me the most was how much work and input are needed in the beginning. Furthermore, I haven’t realized the valley right before the community becomes self-reliant. To overcome this valley you need to increase your time, effort, and input again.

How I used my key learnings at work

After reading the book I started challenging even more the purpose of the meeting: Why are we meeting here? What are the values we share? I am even more conscious about my time spent in the meeting.
In addition, I resist creating or joining communities of practice for every topic I’m passionate about. As it takes a lot of time to get the community running or to add value focus is key.

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Unearthed Product
Nadine Oldorf
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