July 27, 2020

How to Create an Agile Community of Practice

TL;DR: Creating an Agile Community of Practice

Creating an agile community of practice helps winning hearts and minds within the organization as it provides authenticity to the agile transition — signaling that the effort is not merely another management fad.

Read more to learn how to get your agile community going even without a dedicated budget and how to make it work with distributed teams.

How to Create an Agile Community of Practice

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How to Become an Agile Organization – When the Plan Meets Reality

Typically, the recipe for becoming an agile organization goes somehow like this: you need the commitment from the C-level to change the culture of the organization and thus its trajectory. You also need strong support from the people in the trenches who want to become autonomous, improve their mastery, and serve a purpose. Then – in a concerted effort – the top and the bottom of the hierarchy can motivate the middle management to turn into servant leaders. (Or, probably, follow Haier.)

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Accordingly, an action plan often starts with hiring a consultancy to help figure out a more actionable roll-out plan, mostly comprising of training and workshops, initial team building activities, and probably some audits concerning financial reporting requirements, technology or governance issues.

What this kind of orchestrated initiative often neglects is the grassroots part of any successful change: provide room and resources to the members of the organizations to engage in a self-directed way with the change process itself.

A successful agile transition needs an agile community of practice.

The Purpose of an Agile Community of Practice

The purpose of an agile community of practice has two dimensions:

  1. Internally, it serves in an educational capacity for agile practitioners and change agents. There is no need to reinvent the wheel at the team-level; regularly sharing what has proven successful or a failure in the context of the transition will significantly ease the burden of learning.
  2. Externally, the agile community of practice contributes to selling, form example, Scrum to the rest of the organization by informing and educating its members. The members of the agile community also serve as the first servant leaders and thus as role models for what becoming an agile organization will mean in practice. They bring authenticity to the endeavor.

Winning hearts and minds by being supportive and acting as a good example day in, day out, is a laborious and less glamorous task. It requires persistence – and being prepared not to take a ‘no’ for an answer but try again. Reaching the tipping point of the agile transition will likely be a slow undertaking with few signs of progress in the beginning. Moreover, management tends to underestimate the inherent latency. According to a recent study directed at the path of acceptance of new social norms, the tipping point for social change in an organization is around 25%. It shows that a committed minority can have a lasting effect once it manages to attract others who are willing to join the cause.

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A Portfolio of Services and Offerings of an Agile Community of Practice

Internal Offerings, Serving the Community

Improving the level of mastery of the members of the agile community of practice is not rocket science. My top picks are as follows:

  • Sharing is caring: The hoarding of information is one of the worst anti-patterns of an agile practitioner. Hence share everything, for example, from Retrospective exercises to information resources (newsletter, blog posts, etc.) to working materiel and supplies is helpful. A Wiki might be the right place to start.
  • Training and education, part 1: Organize regular workshops among the agile practitioners to train each other. If not everyone is co-located, either record the training for later use or create live virtual classes. Using Liberating Structures ensures that everyone will be included and given a voice. (All of my Professional Scrum training classes are now live virtual training classes with excellent feedback from the students. Being distributed as a team is no excuse to skip the training part of the transformation.)
  • Training and education, part 2:: If you have a budget available, invite the Marty Cagans to the organization to train the trainers. You cannot overestimate the psychological impact of such training on the change agents. It is proof that the change is what the leadership if the organization wants.
  • Organize events: Have regular monthly (virtual) events for the agile practitioners and others from the organization and host meetups with external speakers. Make sure that all practitioners meet at least once a quarter in person for a day-long mini-conference, if possible. Otherwise, host virtual conference instead.
  • The annual conference: Consider hosting an organization-wide yearly ‘State of Agile’ conference to share lessons learned, success stories, and failures. Again, this can be a virtual conference as well.
  • Communication: Use a Slack or Microsoft Teams group to foster friction-less communication among the community members.
  • Procurement: Find a workaround to allow non-listed suppliers to provide supplies such as special pens or stickies. It also could be required software for remote work that is currently not available through official channels. (Probably, there is a freelancer or contractor among the practitioners who can help with that.)

External Offerings, Serving the Organization

Generally, what is working for the agile community of practices is also suitable for the members of the organization, probably with a different focus, though. Try, for example, the following:

  • Provide training: Provide hands-on training classes in close collaboration with the change agents. Consider a less demanding format that a typical day-long training class – a focused one-hour class in the late afternoon may prove to be just the right format for your organization. (Tip: Avoid the necessity for participants to apply somewhere to be allowed to the class. That will massively improve attendance rates.) Also, consider offering a kind of curriculum that is comprised of several of those light-weight classes. This format is also perfectly suited for live virtual classes. If you are unfamiliar with organizing such virtual training classes, check out Remote Agile (9): A Cheat Sheet for Remote Agile Event Planning.
  • Communication: Consider running a website or blog beyond the agile community of practice’s Wiki to promote the organization’s path to becoming an agile organization. The best means I have encountered so far to foster engagement among change agents and early adopters is a weekly or bi-weekly newsletter within the organization.
  • Make ‘agile’ mandatory for new colleagues: Educate all new hires on agile principles and practices to support the repositioning of the company. I described this approach here in detail: App Prototyping with Absolute Beginners.
  • Gain visibility: Selling Agile to the organization to win hearts & minds is best achieved by making ‘agile’ tangible at a low-risk level for the individual. For example, organize regularly lean coffee sessions or knowledge cafés thus providing a safe environment to check this ‘agile’ thing out. Invite people directly to ceremonies, for example, Sprint Reviews – if you practice Scrum – that might be of interest to them. (Guerilla advertising is welcome: I used to print invitations for Sprint Reviews of my team, put them inside elevators, or left them on the tables of the cafeteria.)
  • Provide access to change agents and Scrum Masters: Lastly, why not offer an informal way of contacting agile coaches and change agents? Some people shy away from asking supposedly stupid questions in the open and may be hard to reach otherwise.
  • Provide transparency: Occupy a space at a highly frequented part of a building or the campus to show what ‘agile’ is about and provide an overview of practices, courses, regular events, etc.
  • Host events: Try to organize regular events for the organization, for example, providing lessons learned from teams that are spearheading the agile transition. Create a schedule in advance and stick to it. Perseverance is critical to fighting the notion that becoming agile is merely a management fad that will go away soon. Again, this works perfectly well with distributed teams. Learn more here: Remote Agile.

Overcoming Resistance to an Agile Community of Practice

So far, I have not yet witnessed open pushback from an organization about the creation of an agile community of practice. More likely, you will encounter complacency or ignorance at the management level. Sometimes, the budgeting process will be utilized – willingly or not – to impede the creation of a community.

But even when you are financially restrained, there is still enough room to move the agile community of practice ahead. There are several services available for free that provide video conferencing and hosting, blogs, event organization, or newsletter services. In my experience, it is less a question of available funds, but you need to overcome your anxiety and get going without waiting for written approval from whomever. Assuming responsibility as an agile practitioner in general and a Scrum Master in particular by starting a community and moving the transition forward sounds like authentic servant leadership to me.

Creating an Agile Community of Practice — Conclusion

Creating an agile community of practice is a vital part of the process of becoming an agile organization. It provides a lot of the groundwork that is necessary to convince the members of the organization that becoming agile is neither hazardous nor a fad but a trend and thus an excellent chance for everyone involved.

Do you have an agile community of practice? If so, what practices have been successful in your organization? Please share with us in the comments.

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