Getting the most out of our community of practice meetings

In the early days of Co-op Digital, our Head of delivery at the time, Jamie Arnold, brought digital people doing similar roles together by setting up communities of practice.

The communities still exist today but, 3 years on, Co-op Digital has expanded significantly: our communities are much bigger, we’re working across more projects and we’re facing different challenges. It’s important that our communities of practice change with the organisation so that we, as communities and as individuals, get the support we need in ways that suit us.

Around 6 months ago, the delivery managers shook up the way we ran our weekly community of practice meetings.

What works for us

The delivery community of practice meets weekly in a meeting room in Federation House. An hour each week feels right for us. We’ve built it into our weekly schedules and we’ve found that this is short enough for us to stay focussed (it doesn’t feel like a team social), and it’s regular enough so that problems don’t build to the stage where the whole session needs to be used to solve them.

Here are some of the things the delivery team has been doing recently in our community of practice meetings.

Setting an objective

In July 2017 we agreed on what the delivery managers’ objective should be. We decided our aim was:

Find better ways for Digital teams to work with their stakeholders, so we gain a common understanding of how we’re working and what we’re planning to deliver.

Having a clear objective that we’d reached together meant that each delivery manager was more invested in our vision than they would be if the objective had been dictated, top down, by one person.

Collaborating to get buy in isn’t a new idea, we know that.

But this is a great example of how it’s worked well: the attendance at our meetups has been consistently high, people have been enthusiastic and have wanted to be a part of a community.

Choosing inclusive topics

We don’t always have an agenda for our meetups but when we do, we make sure we choose topics that don’t exclude anyone. Nobody feels like they can’t or shouldn’t contribute.

Like with all communities in Co-op Digital, stakeholders are something every delivery manager has in common so we’ve often made them the focus of our meetings. We’ve interviewed some of them and used our time together to feed back what they’ve said. We’ve then talked about what we can do from a delivery point of view to meet stakeholder needs better, for example, how best to share what we’re working on regularly with them so they can be as involved as they need to be. We found that what works for one team and its stakeholders often doesn’t work for another.

Sharing techniques

A huge part of our roles as delivery managers is to facilitate sessions. This could be agile ceremonies such as sprint planning, retros, and show and tells but it also includes one-off workshops intended to help the team with setting direction or clarifying longer-term priorities. Because all teams and individuals are different, a technique that works superbly in one scenario may work less well in another so sharing and comparing ways to get to the same point has been really beneficial for our community.

Keeping up with current wider delivery discussions

As with all disciplines, it’s important to look outside our immediate community. It keeps us relevant and engaged. Sometimes, we talk about things we’ve read, tweets we’ve seen, arguments we’ve heard from the delivery community outside of Co-op. We’ve recently discussed Sebastian Deterding’s video on Hacking Shyness: Designing Social Interaction and Why Commitment Culture Wins by Damian Hughes.

Holding ‘open’ sessions

Every 4 to 6 weeks we hold a meet-up where there’s no agenda. Instead, everyone is given a post it note and writes either a problem, a triumph, a question or a comment on it. We dot vote on what we’d like to discuss and we talk through each topic for 5 minutes starting with whichever got the highest vote.

The benefits of belonging

For us, being part of a community of practice is more than attending a weekly hour-long meetup. It’s about having a support network of people who are best-placed to listen, understand and advise when we need it. Each delivery manager is also part of a group of 3 people who face similar challenges, for example, they’re working with more then 1 team. On a day-to-day basis, that smaller group is the first point of contact.   

Superb for personal development  

Since we’ve been running these meetups, I’ve been saving links, quotes, tweets, tips, guidelines and notes I’ve taken in our meetings – anything I think I’ll revisit. It’s my toolbox: it’s full of the knowledge and practical advice that’s been shared with me and I feel better-equipped to deliver products and services with it.

How to start a community of practice

You don’t have to work in a digital team to get value from a community of practice. As social learning consultants,  Etienne Wenger-Trayer and Beverly Wenger-Trayer said:

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. 

If you’d like to learn more or if you’d like help setting up a community, email me victoria.mitchell@coopdigital.co.uk

Victoria Mitchell
Digital skills principal

Making better, joined-up decisions with the engineering community

This month, it’s 3 months since we set up our engineering community for software engineers, platform engineers, service managers and quality analysts at the Co-op. It’s early days but it’s already helping move Co-op engineering in the right direction.

Getting together with people who do similar jobs helps us all be more joined up which is really important, especially in a place as big as the Co-op. Without a community, we’d be working in isolation because our day jobs are within Co-op Digital, Co-op Legal Services or Funeralcare.

When we began meeting regularly, we identified the areas we need to work together to develop, including how we support training and development and coming up with development standards.

Picture of our Engineering community of practice

We’ve created infrastructure standards

I was really pleased to see that practices such as Continuous Delivery and Infrastructure as Code were already well established when I joined Co-op Digital 6 months ago. However teams were working in isolation at that point. Lots of them had similar problems and were tackling them in different ways. This meant that getting some of the services we were launching to a point where they were secure, reliable and supported was trickier than it needed to be because there was quite a bit of rework involved.

To make things simpler, we spent time during our community of practice meet-ups to create shared standards for our platform infrastructure. There’s still plenty to do and these things are never really finished of course, but we’re now in a much better shape and future projects will follow a much easier path. Most importantly, teams are more empowered to get on with stuff and do their job.

We’re also working on standards for how we’ll support cloud infrastructure across several teams. This work will sit with our Digital Operations team which is forming steadily.

Making better technology decisions

Out of that also came a clear need to provide better support around making technology decisions. We want teams to be empowered, but at the same time there’s always going to be a limit on how many different technologies we can support and maintain. Our approach has been to try and provide really great guidance so teams can make decisions in context rather than needing meetings to make decisions. It’s all still quite early days so again we’ll hopefully come back again soon and update on how it’s getting on.

We’ve been hiring

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We’ve worked with some great external companies while we’ve been adding gradually to our in-house expertise but we’re at a stage now where we’re looking to bring in a significant number of software and platform engineers. The Co-op Digital team and the wider engineering community of practice is looking forward to new talent joining us. From there, the culture of the team will grow and strengthen.

If you’re interested, take a look at our Work with us page for the roles we currently have open. We’ll be recruiting for engineers for the Funeralcare team shortly.

In the meantime, sign up to the blog and follow Co-op Digital on Twitter.

Rob Bowley
Head of Engineering

The importance of having a safe place to listen and learn

Six months ago, after a workshop with agile coach Emily Webber, we set up a community of practice for the delivery managers here at Co-op Digital. Emily believes that communities of practice help to connect people in organisations that are scaling their agile delivery. They also support individuals and help the group avoid duplication of work.

So a group of us who work on projects including Food, Funerals, Wills and Locations Services, starting putting a couple of hours aside each week to catch up and support each other.

To kick things off, we came up with our mission and manifesto.

blue slide with white text says: our mission is to inspire ourselves and others at Co-op and beyond by setting and continuously improving the standard of agile, collaborative delivery.

white slide says: agile delivery community manifesto. we are committed to developing a community of practice thats sets and improves the standard of agile ways of working in Co-op and beyond. We will do this by: being open and honest, respecting each other and not being judgemental, putting in the effort to help and encourage each other, making time for the community and actively contributing, focus on outcomes and making them happen, setting ourselves up for learning and continuous improvement

We talked about our goals and put everything we’d like to do on a Trello board. We thought about what we’d like to be able to tell people about being an agile delivery manager at Co-op Digital, and how we could influence groups in the wider Co-op by sharing our better practices.

Just for starters

Since then, we’ve tackled a lot of stuff on the list. We’ve:

  • organised digital masterclasses for new colleagues at Co-op Digital. These sessions are an introduction to agile at the Co-op and an overview of what it’s like to be part of a digital product team here
  • introduced a section on agile working to a training course on waterfall. Now Co-op project and portfolio managers will learn about both delivery methods
  • created a place to write about and share our experiences within the community when we try something new; when things go well and when they don’t go well
  • defined which skills a delivery manager at Co-op should have. This will help us see where we need more training and what to focus on when we recruit

Our community’s work is starting to become recognised around the wider business. That’s important because it means more people will have an understanding of what delivery managers do and how we can help teams work more efficiently. It’s good for individual teams and ultimately, it’s good for the business.

Time to reflect in a retrospective

Now we’re 6 months in, in true delivery manager style, we’ve had a retro to find out how each member of the community thought things were going. We talked about what we think has gone well and what we could do better in 2017.

We drew a timeline of the last 6 months and used green post-its to mark significant events. Then we each approached the timeline from a personal perspective and added pink post-its to mark our positives and blue post-its for personal negatives. Then we worked together to come up with actions to try and make sure the bad bits don’t happen again. After that, we each used marker pens to draw our highs and our lows. Here’s Steve in action!

Steve Bruce drawing his highs and lows on the timeline

Making time for meetups

Interestingly, the timeline showed that each community member felt more positive when we’d had regular meetings. So prioritising our meetups became an action. When the workload on your team is mega, it can be tricky to find the time to step away, even for an hour, but we’ve all found that getting together helps us not get bogged down.

The community of practice and me

I’ve learnt a lot from our meetups. They’ve been somewhere to stamp our feet, make new friends, bury ourselves in post-its, support each other by giving and taking advice. Sharing how you feel in a safe environment is invaluable. Especially when you’re with the people who are best-placed to support you with the tricky parts of your job.

I’d encourage everyone to come together with their community and try it. And let us know how useful you find it in the comments.

Kim Morley
Delivery manager