Category: Community of Practice

How Leaders Can Facilitate Engagement During Virtual Team Meetings

Woman in a virtual meeting When was the last time you were part of a virtual meeting? If you asked me that five years ago I would have had to stop and think. Today, the answer is easy, I’m either leading or participating in a virtual meeting almost every day of the week. The recent pandemic has definitely had an impact on the number of virtual meetings being held and we all may be experiencing a bit of “zoom fatigue.” 

This trend towards virtual meetings isn’t like to change anytime soon, even when social distancing becomes a thing of the past. In fact, researchers at GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com estimate that we will see 25-30% of the workforce working at home multiple days a week by the end of 2021. The advantages of virtual meetings are that they allow you to develop broader connections, especially within Communities of Practice. Yet, we’ve all experienced some of the disadvantages. For many of us, it feels far easier and more natural to engage with others when you’re at an in-person meeting.

There are practices that leaders can use to promote deeper engagement during virtual meetings. In fact, you might be surprised that some of the results end up exceeding your expectations!

Here are three key practices that will make a difference in the level of engagement your participants will experience:

  1. Focus on outcomes. This is important for every meeting, but when it’s virtual it’s even more important because it can be all too easy to disengage. As a leader, you want every participant in the meeting to feel connected to the outcome. It’s best if they understand the big picture, beyond their area of personal responsibility, so they’re fully engaged in finding the solution.

Make sure to communicate, in advance, the anticipated outcomes, or focus, of the meeting. This can be done by preparing and sharing an agenda for the meeting in advance. You can also co-create outcomes at the beginning of the meeting. The first ten minutes or so of a meeting will often be about the question: Why does this matter? If this hasn’t been clarified by the agenda at the beginning of the meeting, things can quickly break down.

  1. Facilitate dynamic personal engagement. As the facilitator of the meeting you need to avoid the pitfall of hogging the spotlight! This means encouraging communication between team members. If every question or comment is always addressed to you as the leader, you’re not really functioning as a team. Instead, allow for, and intentionally include, opportunities for people to speak with one another.

How can you do this when you’re meeting virtually? I’ve seen it done in various ways effectively. In some team meetings, we go into smaller breakout rooms within the virtual meeting for 15-20 minutes to brainstorm and discuss strategies. Then we come back and report our findings to the entire group. I’ve also had meetings where the facilitator will take a short break and set it up for participants to text each other in dyads or triads to help seed the conversation and maintain engagement.

  1. Keep fine-tuning your efforts. Here’s the most important key to encouraging deeper engagement. Leave a few minutes (I recommend ten) at the end of the meeting to discuss what’s working and what’s not. We are shifting into this new norm together. 

While some groups have more experience than others, let’s not take the old model and wedge it into this new experience. Take this as an opportunity to explore, invent, and discover new ways of engaging that can sustain us whether we work in separate locations or have the opportunity to work in co-locations.

This level of engagement is going to require more effort from you as the team leader. However, the reason for meeting together is to build and tap into the collective wisdom of the group. This cannot be accomplished if your participants are distracted and disengaged. You’ll find that as they engage more fully, you’ll be making better joint decisions that your entire team is excited to implement.

I would appreciate hearing from you about the quality of your virtual team meetings. What’s working well and where are you still struggling?  Please contact me or connect with me via LinkedIn.

How to Establish Guidelines for Virtual Community of Practice Meetings

A woman interacting with a virtual community of practiceMore than ever, the world needs to explore new solutions. Practices that worked well before in business, health care, education, government, may not be working so well now. Which is why we need functioning Communities of Practice (CoPs). A Community of Practice is a space for ideas, the generation of possibilities, and permission to explore out-of-the-box solutions. 

Technology has opened up the possibility of “long-distance” Communities of Practice. There are new CoPs starting virtually, while others are adapting their communities for virtual meetings. It’s exciting to see, all over the world, new Communities of Practice are being created to meet the changing needs of our society. 

In my last post, I discussed how CoPs can continue to have productive meetings during the quarantine. However, I’m finding there are new challenges that need to be addressed. The key to successful meetings is the same as it’s always been: appropriate guidelines or norms. Why is there most likely a need for revised guidelines now? 

I’ll give you an example. In the past months, I’ve been a part of multiple calls during which there were distracting background noises. In some cases, it was hard to hear or concentrate on what the person was saying, and as a result, I became fatigued, distracted, and frustrated. I’m not saying this to make anyone feel guilty about a similar situation, there was simply no guideline in place to deal with this situation. 

With this in mind, let’s go over how to revise your guidelines with a specific focus on virtual meetings. 

1. Technology

Video conference technology is new to many of us, and that’s why it so vital to establish some ground rules. For example, will you be allowing and/or supporting the use of webcams, screen sharing, and breakout rooms? 

With all the added distractions of online meetings, the meeting facilitator has to make sure to keep everyone focused on the job at hand. As the facilitator, the more familiar and comfortable you are with the technology, the easier it will be for you to facilitate a community online. If you’re new to the program you’re using, it may be a good idea to have a trial run with an assistant or colleague before you host your next meeting.

2. Establish a Structure

It’s vital to clarify how to interact in this virtual environment, otherwise, meetings can feel aimless. At the very beginning of the meeting, establish or reiterate your guidelines. You could post a slide with instructions and expectations or spend some time at the first meeting to come up with them as a group. I find that the expectations of a CoP meeting often center around what, how, and when participants should communicate during the CoP meeting, as well as how they should contact each other afterward. 

At the beginning of each meeting, it’s also a good idea to review the overall goals for the virtual CoP meeting and share a short agenda with the group. Many times it can be as simple as proposing a problem or opportunity to help focus your discussion. 

3. Encourage Positive Interaction

Make sure to encourage positive interactions in your CoP (and include them in your guidelines). People are under a lot of stress right now and might be showing signs of fatigue and a shorter fuse! Be specific in your guidelines in encouraging questions, ideas, feedback, and constructive criticism, while discouraging personal attacks, tangents, as well as violations of community trust and privacy. 

In a safe environment, where there are clear norms guiding the interaction, community members will be much more likely to open up about personal struggles or accomplishments. In a healthy virtual CoP, members share strategies, reinforce the bonds they established in person, and connect with others who share similar challenges and can provide creative solutions.

A thriving virtual CoP is exactly what we need in these difficult times. I would love to hear about how your involvement in a virtual Community of Practice is making a difference for you and your communities. Please contact me or connect with me via LinkedIn.

How to Ensure Your Virtual Community of Practice Thrives During Quarantine

A man works with his virtual community of practiceThe world didn’t stop turning when we all went into quarantine. I live in California and we’ve been sheltering in place for several weeks now and I’ve been working for Touro University from home. I’m sure you’d agree that there’s a pressing need for community and the interaction, learning, and problem-solving it can provide in these chaotic times. 

It’s been interesting to watch Communities of Practice (CoPs) spring into existence to meet these new challenges. For example, I’m seeing how educators are seeing the need to remain connected. They are forming CoPs to quickly share strategies on setting up virtual classrooms, reinforce the bonds they established in person, and connect with other teachers who share similar challenges and can provide creative solutions.

The medical field is also seeing the need for Communities of Practice. For instance, the COVID-19 Clinical Council has established 23 multidisciplinary clinical communities of practice across key clinical specialties to support the response to COVID-19. 

Luckily, we’ve acquired technology in the past few years that can help us to move forward, pandemic notwithstanding. If used effectively, there’s no reason why we can’t be just as productive in quarantine as we are in-person. The operative words being if used effectively

It’s difficult enough to have an effective CoP meeting in person, to say nothing of virtual meetings. It’s likely that you’ve had the following experience: Your Zoom meeting begins on a strong note, with everyone glad to see each other again and ready to get to work. However, after a while, the meeting just seems to peter out, as there is no real direction to the conversation.

Here are some tips that I’ve compiled on how we can have better remote CoP meetings. My thought is that these tips will prove to be useful even in a post-coronavirus world. 

Define the problem 

You need to provide a structured opportunity for attendees to engage fully. In order to do that, attendees need to have felt the problem. It’s when your audience engages emotionally with the problem (or opportunity) that they will get involved. You might try to share a shocking statistic, anecdote, or analogy that dramatizes the problem. The group has to realize the importance of what you’re discussing. Because let’s face it, when you are working remotely, it can be all too easy to get distracted. 

Share responsibility 

Due to the nature of virtual meetings, you can become, without thinking, a passive observer rather than an engaged participant. To counteract this effect, create an experience of shared responsibility in your presentation. Give team members tasks in which they can actively take part so there is nowhere to hide. The more members there are in the group, the more important it is that you find specific ways of engaging with everyone. For example, you could break people into groups and give them separate tasks with a fixed time-frame; this way, everyone feels personally responsible for a part of the discussion.

Be prepared and concise 

As I’ve already mentioned, without meaningful interaction, group members will lose focus. To keep everyone engaged, everyone must be prepared. Don’t lose sight of the goal of the meeting, whatever that may be. However, being prepared isn’t the same as being long-winded. The last thing your group needs is an hour-long Powerpoint presentation with only one speaker. Switch it up every five minutes to keep your team engaged; otherwise, your team members will revert back to the role of observers rather than participants, and as we’ve learned, you don’t want that. 

Of course, these principles apply to in-person meetings as well. However, there is a whole new set of challenges when team members are alone and their minds are free to wander. 

Learning doesn’t need to stop during these tough times. In fact, a virtual Community of Practice can help to lift your spirits as you find new ways to help others in your community. I would love to hear about how your involvement in a virtual Community of Practice is making a difference for you and for those you serve. Please contact me or connect with me via LinkedIn.

The Three Essential Elements of a Community of Practice—Part 3: Practice

Essential elements of a community of Practice: PracticeWhat makes a Community of Practice work? I’ve been exploring, in a three-part series, the key elements that make up a successful Community of Practice. We’ve already examined #1 domain, and #2 community, so now it’s time to dive into the final element, practice. 

In this series, we’ve seen how the domain establishes the general area of interest for the community members made up of mutual peer relationships. The practice element entails the sharing of real-life experiences, stories, tools, and ways of addressing problems. So in order to have a strong Community of Practice (CoP), you need strong practitioners!

In a CoP, knowledge is not created in one place by external experts and “taught” so it can be used in practice by others. In a CoP, every member of the team is a Steward of Knowledge. As guardians of their practice, each team member is an expert by virtue of already being a strong practitioner. Ideally, each member brings with them diverse experiences and over time this valuable learning gets pooled. The individual members are empowered to take any new learning back to their domain. 

This interaction also strengthens a sense of shared purpose and values between community members. How the group shares, codifies, elevates and even celebrates each person’s practice demonstrates the community’s commitment to supporting each person in developing their practice. 

Here are three ways to ensure a strong practice in your Community of Practice:

Curate members. Having a shared domain doesn’t, in and of itself, guarantee that a person belongs in a Community of Practice. In establishing a new CoP, it’s wise to set up a criteria for new members. You want to look for active practitioners who can contribute current, relevant, and valuable experiences. 

They should also possess qualities that make CoPs successful – such as openness and trustworthiness. For example, someone might be interested in the domain of leadership, however, if they have no experience as a leader and aren’t keen to learn, they probably aren’t a good fit with a community of experienced leaders committed to rapidly making a difference. 

Encourage transparency. The purpose of a CoP isn’t to impress others with your know-how. The community benefits when members honestly share mistakes as well as successes. Discuss new things you’ve learned, sometimes the hard way! Egos should be left by the door if you want to engage in creative brainstorming and problem-solving. 

I’ve also seen the benefit of sharing knowledge through real-life storytelling. Stories allow members to engage each other and illustrate what’s possible in a way that can’t easily be expressed in any other way. 

Providing flexible platforms for sharing. After seeing the value of sharing real-life experiences, how do you facilitate it? The best sharing of “practice” takes place during in-person meetings where dynamic interchanges from participants are encouraged. If possible, try to meet together regularly. If being dispersed geographically or having scheduling difficulties makes regular meetings difficult, you can explore meeting together via web or teleconferences, instant messaging, or chat rooms. 

There is also tremendous value in providing a storehouse of information via message boards, wikis, blogs, or video blogs. A member can post something and days later a colleague can provide feedback or ask a question. Consider having a way to collect success stories that include photos, video clips, and work samples to provide tangible evidence of changes in practice that led to enhanced results.

If you’ve been following this series, you’re beginning to see the benefits of participating in a fully engaged Community of Practice. You’re seeing how being part of a CoP can make you the beneficiary of best practices that you can share and apply in your extended networks or workplace. 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.

The Three Essential Elements of a Community of Practice—Part 2: Community

Essential elements of a community of Practice: CommunityDo you ever feel invisible at work or amongst colleagues? As far as most business teams are concerned, the element of “community” is often neglected. In most teams, communication only flows one way: from the top, down. Goals and decisions are made by management, with little consideration paid to those lower down on the totem pole. 

However, a Community of Practice (CoP) is different. As I mentioned in the first post of this three-part series, you can think about a CoP as being made up of three main parts: domain, community, and practice. Without all of these elements, including community, it might be a team but it’s not a CoP.

What we find is that with most business teams the focus is on the “practice” (the third element which we will be discussing in the next article), to the exclusion of the other two elements. So, let’s dive into the second element of a Community of Practice and answer the question: Why is “community” so important to the success of a CoP and how can it be fostered? 

Mutual relationships are a must.

The community element in a CoP is a web of mutual relationships within which members share their learning, perspectives, and knowledge. You can speak your truth, instead of what you think the boss or group leader wants to hear. As a community of collaborators, you can share wins, without fear of competition, and struggles without fear of judgment. 

When you’re part of a Community of Practice, you are with a community of your peers who share accountability. Decisions that affect the group are made by the community and never made by an individual member. This is due to the open exchange of dialogue and ideas. Because a Community of Practice is participatory in nature, there is more room for this transparent and bidirectional communication. 

How to foster community.

You may already have this community surrounding you without being aware of it. It’s very common for a community to develop organically around a shared domain. Wegner-Trayner shared an interesting historical example of a CoP, that of the “Impressionists” of the late 19th-century. The Impressionists would meet together at a variety of locations to discuss their new approach to painting, and while they often painted alone, their dialogue on a shared domain made them a legitimate example of a community of practice. 

Although it is true that Community of Practice members works closely together, there aren’t rules for how often communities meet—it doesn’t have to be daily. It doesn’t even have to be in person. There are very productive CoPs that meet virtually using message boards and video conferencing. Size is also not a critical component, you can have a small group made up of a handful of local people or a much larger international group.

What is necessary is a commitment to learning and sharing with each other. You’ve most likely experienced that having the same job or role doesn’t automatically create a sense of community if there is no interest in interaction. There shouldn’t be rules preventing members from entering and leaving a Community of Practice, and CoPs should remain active only as long as the members are benefiting. 

Although Communities of Practice operate with different degrees of formality, there still should be a set of agreed-upon norms. Norms are essential to building a community, without them a community cannot stabilize. These also assist with meetings. Norms provide a common language for team members to hold each other accountable during the meeting and make invisible agreements more apparent. 

Next steps

Now that you’ve established a community around a specific domain, what does a Community of Practice actually do? In my next post, I’ll be discussing the third critical element of a CoP—practice—what it is, and how you can develop it in your own community. 

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.

Louise J Santiago, PhD
Executive Coach and Organizational Consultant

Where Leadership is Intentional Work

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