The Three Essential Elements of a Community of Practice—Part 1: Domain

Essential elements of a community of Practice: Domain. When I lead training sessions on Communities of Practice, we often begin by analyzing the groups we already belong to identify those that fit the criteria of a Community of Practice (CoP). Are you already part of a CoP, perhaps without even being aware of it? What are the defining elements? What makes it different from other business teams?

It turns out that you can think about a CoP as being comprised of three main elements: domain, community, and practice. Without even one of these elements, it might be a community or a team but it’s simply not a CoP. 

This is the first of a series of three articles on these three must-have elements of a CoP. We will dive into each one starting with—Domain. 

Domain—What is it?

A domain is that one thing all members have in common, the focus of their work, or the central, organizing principle. The domain might be housing, marketing, entertainment, education, leadership, community outreach, etc. You may be a member of a CoP through a professional affiliation, local community involvement, or in an educational endeavor. For example, in education, there are many successful CoPs build around domains such as curricula and teacher best practices.

The domain is the central idea that we call our work, but more specifically, it is the thing around which we exercise our knowledge and skills. This distinction is important for a CoP because in a CoP we document knowledge and share our practice, thus deepening our skill level in our domain. For example, in a group of leaders who come together to provide a network of ideas around the topic of leadership the “domain” would be leadership and the “practice” would be the individual leadership work they each do. 

How a Domain Focuses a Community 

Most often, it’s the domain that brings a CoP together by providing it with purpose. I discussed in a previous post on effective meetings, how without purpose your meeting almost always breaks down. The same could be said about a CoP: If your domain is weak, not specific enough, or if there are community members uncommitted to the domain, then there are likely to be problems. However, if the domain is relevant, targeted, and every member knows why they are part of the community, then it will likely flourish. 

It’s often the case that a group of people is already working together in your domain. If that’s true, you may consider exploring whether the group is a CoP or could benefit from becoming a CoP. In fact, this is how many CoPs are formed, via already existing groups. This could be a working group, a professional club, a local community association, or a message board community, but it must have a focused domain in order to be successful. 

On the other hand, if it seems that your domain of interest does not already exist in the form of a CoP, there are steps you can follow to develop a community. In my next post, I’ll be discussing the second critical element of a CoP—communities—what they are, and how they form. 

In the meantime, are you intrigued by the benefits of a Community of Practice? I can support you to create a self-facilitating Community of Practice that is built, owned, and managed by your team. Contact me to learn more or download my special report Leading a Purpose-Driven Team.

How to Create an Effective Agenda for Your Next Community of Practice Meeting

Agendas in Communities of PracticeOne mainstay of Communities of Practice (CoPs) is that they are a collective; the focus on Community is intentional. This is one of the things that distinguishes CoPs from other business teams and why they’re my preferred model of collaboration. The meeting agenda exemplifies how a Community of Practice functions differently.

When it comes to meeting agendas no one person is solely responsible for owning or controlling the agenda. The agenda is a co-constructed and collaborative affair. When a meeting agenda is handled this way, everyone takes responsibility for the meeting outcomes. 

But of course, problems can arise when there are conflicts of interest, confusion about the meeting topic, length, etc. This leads us to the question: How can Communities of Practice create quality agendas and have productive meetings, despite the challenges that come when working with a diverse group of people? 

I’ve outlined four questions you should answer as you create an effective agenda for your next CoP meeting:

Who will be the meeting facilitator? 

One provision to ensure that you’re all on “the same page” (agenda) is to have a designated facilitator. This person is the one that will get everyone involved in the creation of the agenda for the next meeting. With online tools, it’s very easy to collaborate on a meeting agenda but the facilitator will be the one who ultimately ensures that it gets done.

I’ve noticed that experienced CoPs will rotate the job of the facilitator. That way, no one person is responsible for creating and presenting the agenda. In addition to creating the agenda, a facilitator in a CoP meeting will want to make sure each member has a chance to speak, that meetings stay on track, and meeting goals are accomplished. 

In a successful CoP meeting, all responsibilities are divided among several individuals, the facilitator is not necessarily the team leader. For example, the role of knowledge management focuses on organizing and posting community documents—such as agendas.

(Note: Add some fun to your agendas to help build community! I remember one community meeting where my colleague’s spouse arrived with their toddler who was wearing a sandwich board with the agenda. Extreme creativity points! Fun and team building all in one. This illustrates an important point, getting the group engaged sometimes takes some creativity. If you see that certain members aren’t engaged in the meeting, try to get them involved. Remember the reason why they’re there!) 

What is the purpose of your meeting?

Have you ever been at a meeting when it feels like you’re going round and round in circles and never getting anywhere? Most likely, the problem was your meeting didn’t have a purpose. When your meeting has a clear purpose, that’s outlined in the agenda, it will focus all of your community members and give your meeting direction. 

The first ten minutes or so of a meeting will often be about the question: Why does this matter? If no one in the group can answer that question, you might as well leave because the meeting is unlikely to be productive.

It’s much better to give this serious thought prior to the meeting. As you prepare the agenda, you’ll want to determine if the purpose is dealing with a short-term tactical problem or if it is more of a long-term strategic issue. Will your participants need to be prepared to brainstorm solutions or just listen? If this hasn’t been clarified by the agenda at the beginning of the meeting, things can quickly break down.

Why is each of you needed at this particular meeting?

We’re all busy and it can be difficult to schedule-out time for team meetings. Spend your time wisely! Most CoP meeting time should be spent discussing and making decisions on issues that affect the whole community and issues the whole community can take part in solving. 

You may want your agenda to specifically mention the reasons why each person should be present. Also, write out the agenda topics as questions that the team needs to answer, as opposed to statements. This will stimulate people to want to attend so their voice is heard.

If the meeting exists simply to disseminate information, put it in writing and send it out for others to read. One way informational meetings are an absolute waste of time. If you find that people aren’t reading the information, that’s a deeper issue of engagement and a true CoP might be just the solution to share more information and responsibilities and increase engagement.

How long should this meeting be?

If the meeting is too long, the interest of the group will wane. Conversely, if the meeting is too short, you could risk ending without a resolution of any kind, which will only stagnate future action. A meeting is correctly ended when all participants leave with clarity and commitment. 

As you prepare the agenda, try to schedule the right amount of time by estimating how much time each topic will take. The facilitator may need to involve others in determining how much time each item will take. Finally, make sure to distribute the meeting agenda with enough time for everyone to prepare as this will speed the meeting along. When an agenda item takes longer than estimated, engage the group in a quick agreement to either extend the time allotted for the item, and thereby reduce the amount of time for another topic, or move the item to ad hoc work, individual follow-up, or a subsequent meeting.

Done right, your next CoP meeting can be constructive, and interesting, for all involved. The best CoPs are by the people, for the people. 

Are you intrigued by the benefits of a Community of Practice? I can support you to create a self-facilitating Community of Practice that is built, owned, and managed by your team. Contact me to learn more or download my special report Leading a Purpose-Driven Team.

4 Reasons Why You Need to Join a Community of Practice

A Community of Practice works together.What do all of the following success stories have in common?

The math department “dream team” that increased academic achievement for at-risk kids with an unheard-of 70-point gain in one year.

The team of school principals who collectively interviewed and determined which candidate was best suited at which campus across the school district.

The leadership team whose program ideas were so fruitful, they gained national recognition and became featured speakers at several high visibility conferences.

Answer: They were all the result of a Community of Practice. 

My experience with Communities of Practice has been such an overwhelmingly positive one over the years. I was involved in all of the above examples! But it begs the question:

“What does it mean to be part of a Community of Practice and how can I join one?”

I love it when people ask me this question! 

It is the furthest thing from staff development or professional development that you can imagine. It’s the space where I learn the most, where I am stretched the most, and where I become better at what I do.

I’d like to share with you four reasons to join a Community and Practice (CoP).

1. You feel accountable (in a good way).

When you’re in your Community of Practice, you are with a group of your peers, people who are accountable and hold you accountable. In a successful CoP, trust is the bedrock on which the community is built. 

There’s a sense of accountability because the group works together to co-construct their own set of norms. They also see the need for continued dialogue about the norms, or standards, to ensure that each voice is heard in the shared behaviors for the group. When you own the norms by which your community runs, a feeling of accountability naturally follows. 

2. You can be fearlessly transparent.

A Community of Practice is not the place for the “pretending” that’s so common in the business world. Successful CoPs are a place for vulnerability. Community collaborators share their practice, and even more daringly, their struggles with their practice. A great measure of effective community building is the growing sense of trust within the group. Honest and open communication within your community can greatly increase your ability, and grow your capacity for accomplishing what you need to accomplish. 

When we’re part of a genuine community, we’re reminded that we need each other in order to grow, develop, achieve, and solve the complex problems we’re facing. There’s a vulnerability in that, but that’s okay. This great article from Dara Blumenthal reminded me of the importance of transparency in the workplace. For most of us, it’s where we spend most of our time. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we were given permission to be ourselves?

3. You get to be creative with your solutions. 

None of us enjoy attending a meeting where there are no new ideas or inspirations, where everyone in attendance seems to be playing their roles, and every “new” idea is predictable. Our own uniques voices can be dulled by our respective titles, the roles we are accustomed to playing, the ways we ignore our personal challenges, and social conditioning we’ve tolerated. 

A Community of Practice is a space of ideas and generation of possibilities. I find that I am more genuine, more passionate, and more understanding of the viewpoints of others’ when I’m part of a CoP. The conversations tend to be nonlinear as we give ourselves permission to explore out-of-the-box solutions.

4. You grow as an embodied leader.

In my last post, I spoke about embodied leadership. It’s about seeing the context — making sense of your story, understanding where you come from, understanding what you believe, and importantly, how your emotions are showing up in your body. Embodied leaders are more mindful of what is happening in their bodies, they are able to capably respond to stress triggers, proactively create shifts in their body, and handle difficult situations skillfully. 

The CoP environment nurtures this type of leadership since as a team you’re learning to “be” together, not just “do” together. In an increasingly independent and disconnected world, you are exploring connection and interdependence. Which is why, in my experience, a CoP is one of the best ways to practice leadership skills. 

Are you intrigued by the benefits of a Community of Practice? Are you wondering how to join one? If you’re part of a team, which most of us are, either at work or as part of an organization, you can adapt this model. I work with teams to help them create a self-facilitating Community of Practice that supports both adaptive and generative learning that is built, owned, and managed by your team. Contact me to learn more or download my special report Leading a Purpose-Driven Team.

Embodied Leadership—The Key To Lasting Change for You and Your Team

A young women practicing embodied leadership.As a leader, you have to be willing to change and adapt. If you resist change, your team will follow your lead and will quickly flounder. Most organizations recognize this, which is why they invest millions of dollars on training leaders. Yet, according to an article on the Harvard Business Review, studies show a 60-70% failure rate for organizational change projects.

Organizational change is so difficult because there is a huge chasm between knowing you need to make a change and being able to actually implement it. For example, perhaps you know you need to be a clearer communicator, but you get in a hurry and your quickly-drafted-email confounds your assistant once again! Or how many times have we read about the importance of exercise or healthful eating, yet it doesn’t seem to translate into action? There is a disconnect between our understanding of the ways in which a changed behavior could be beneficial and its actual implementation.

If you’re like me, a 60-70% failure rate is simply unacceptable. The ability to follow through with a change, or a challenge, is a vital skill that all leaders need. I’ve recently discovered an approach that can bridge the gap between knowledge and action—embodied leadership.

My Discovery—A Lifelong Friend and a New Approach to Leadership

Louise Santiago and Marie ConnollySeveral years ago, I enrolled in a coach development program through Coaches Rising. Through the class, I met Maria Connolly. We soon found that we had a deep connection based on our mutual belief, that everyone has innate leadership skills

Maria is a somatic coach, and I am an executive leadership coach. Our unique blend of talent helped us realize that we could offer opportunities for women to bring forth their own inner leaders to expand their world, their community, and themselves, so we launched Newave Leaders.

Embodied leadership became a theme in our work together. 

In order to be an embodied leader, you have to make sense of your story, understand where you come from, understand what you believe, and importantly, how your emotions are showing up in your body. All these things are impacting whether or not you can step into the next phase of your life. Without this understanding, this embodied intelligence, you won’t be able to make lasting changes in your behaviors and attitudes. 

We realized how important this idea was to lasting change! So, to share it with others, we designed an annual women’s retreat. These retreats are an opportunity to travel to different parts of the world and truly retreat and explore our depths to actualize a plan to embody the changes we wish to make as we push ourselves to the next level of growth. 

Maria and I both lead and experience the retreat each year and have found it enriches our own individual coaching practices. I’m so excited to have the opportunity to develop my own practice and collaborate with a great partner around the intersection of our work. (If you’re interested in learning more about Newave Leaders, check out our blog, or sign up for our newsletter.) 

Embodied leadership coaching is also an integral part of my work with my Center for Learning Leaders clients. If you’re ready to make sustainable changes and lead with intention, integrity, and in alignment with your purpose, please fill out the questionnaire on my Coaching for Executives page.

A Split-Second Strategy to Better Manage Your Emotional Response as a Leader

A leader snaps at a team-member then remember to reappraise her emotions. “You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.”-Buddha

At one time or another, all leaders experience strong negative emotions—irritation, discouragement, frustration, and even anger. We all know how disturbing it can be to lose control over negative emotions, even if only for a moment because a lot of damage can occur in that moment.

How you handle these emotions can be a make a huge difference in the success of your team. Most of us have probably experienced working with an irritable supervisor or touchy coworker and it can be distracting and draining! Let’s consider a few common ways of handling negative emotions, and examine what modern research tells us about how a 21-century leader can best manage her emotions. 

Express or Suppress?

The history of conventional wisdom in regard to managing negative emotions is a long and interesting one. But one aspect of this multigenerational discussion seems to continually resurface: Should we express or suppress our negative emotions?

For much of history, popular wisdom held that one should never express negative feelings and that doing so could only be harmful. However, during the mid-20th century, there was a major shift among many influential psychologists. They contended that strong negative emotions should be expressed. The thinking was that if these negative emotions went unexpressed (anger in particular), it could cause ulcers, heart attacks, headaches, etc, as well as wreaking havoc on human relationships. 

So, where do we stand now? 

How should leaders respond to a negative incident? Should a leader master her frustration, put on a fake smile, and not discuss the problem? Or should she honestly and fully express her feelings? Which one of these is going to work best?

As it turns out, neither strategy is truly effective. 

Completely suppressing negative emotions has led to a whole host of negative consequences—fewer close relationships, less social support, and lower life satisfaction. Suppressing our negative emotions also elevates other people’s stress response. The problem with this strategy is that it essentially says, “Ignore the problem until it goes away,” but instead of going away the emotions fester. 

What about fully expressing one’s anger? Since suppression can be so harmful it would seem like the other extreme, expression, could work. However, fully expressing the frustration you’re feeling in the moment can destroy the trust you’ve built with your team. What’s more, instead of bringing you relief, expressing your negative emotions often leads to only more negative emotions. 

Quickly Reappraise Your Viewpoint

Modern research is pointing to a different way of dealing with negative emotions—reappraisal. Reappraisal is the re-framing of a problem where one focuses attention on the problem’s root. Instead of viewing a problem as a threat, which decreases performance and motivation, it’s viewed as a challenge. 

Reappraisal works so well because it is a way of redirecting negative emotions instead of trying to stifle or encourage them. It can be helpful to take deep breaths and let the negative emotion wash over you, then redirect your focus towards the challenge. 

For example, suppose you are driving down the freeway when another driver cuts you off trying to make their exit. Immediately, you feel a swell of anger overtake you. Now you have a couple of options—let the situation ruin your day or try to reappraise it. Instead of labeling the person as a reckless driver, perhaps she was late for work and worried about upsetting her boss, or maybe the woman was driving someone to the hospital. 

Notice that it was a slip-second decision to reappraise the scenario. The original appraisal was involuntary—that person is a reckless driver. Whereas the reappraisal, or re-judging of the situation in a more neutral or positive direction, took a concerted effort as well as strong awareness. Studies have shown that this small effort can alter one’s subjective emotional experience very quickly.

This reappraisal strategy is priceless for those of us that are leaders. The complexity of executive leadership, especially when combined with the modern entrepreneurial spirit can be both rewarding and challenging. Leaders need to be able to handle negative emotions in a constructive way. 

So the next time you feel a spark of anger towards your bumbling colleague, try to reappraise the situation. You just might be saving yourself a world of hurt. 

Exceptional leadership isn’t accidental. One-on-one coaching is the fastest way to get the training, support, and accountability you need to focus on your growth as a leader. If you’re ready to lead with intention, integrity and in alignment with your purpose, please fill out the questionnaire on my Coaching for Executives page.


Louise J Santiago, PhD
Executive Coach and Organizational Consultant

Where Leadership is Intentional Work

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