The Power of Community in Developing Distributed Product and Engineering Teams

As a product or engineering leader it’s likely your running Scrum, Agile, Lean or some variation of contemporary product development.  Whatever the method, execution teams are cross-functional and often co-locate to maximize collaboration and speed to decisions.   There are many benefits to co-location, but one aspect that is put at risk is good practice development. With one Product Owner and one Technical Lead on a team, how do these associates learn from other Product or Technical leads?  Who develops consistency across the roles?

As organizations grow the number of associates completing a specific set of activities and operating with the same skills continue to increase.  A startup may have one or two teams executing, thus sharing learnings and developing best practices across each role is relatively easy as everyone is in the same room.  Even as two teams become four, communication can still flow pretty organically.  There is a tipping point where scalability becomes a factor and practitioners need new methods to leverage the learnings of their colleagues on other teams, and best practices need to be created to establish consistency in how roles function. The more teams spread across initiatives, products, and technology the more a need emerges to bring practitioners together as part of a community.  This is where establishing formal Communities of Practice can create scalable knowledge networks where associates distributed across departments, initiatives, and physical geography can begin to leverage the learnings of other community members and begin raising the tide for everyone.

Designing a Community

“The goal of community design is to bring out the community’s own internal direction, character, and energy.” – Wenger et al., 2002


Designing communities starts with a realization that the communities already exist in an informal fashion.  Three Engineers that work closely on a team have friends that work on other teams.  They eat lunch together; go to happy hour together, their kids have play dates together – as a result they are naturally discussing challenges they recently faced.  Creating Communities of Practice is more an exercise in connecting existing informal networks and providing a mechanism for sharing.  Practitioners who sit at the intersection points of your organization’s idea networks are the ideal candidates to lead formal creation.  They have the relationships in place, are widely respected as leaders, and can pull together other leaders.

Simply bringing associates together who are facing similar challenges allows for informal development as they bounce ideas off of one another on how to solve their latest design question.  Having a weekly Community of Practice meeting with an informal agenda will have immediate value.  It is key to ensure that there is time for free discussion in these meetings.  The beginning and end of meetings are great times for this.  How many meetings have you been in where a valuable connection regarding a current issue was created at the beginning or end of the meeting outside of the standing agenda?  Those 5 – 10 minutes of the meeting where conversations seem to trail off the agenda can be the most valuable to the community.   This can be a little unnerving, as a meeting appears to wander off topic.  Challenge yourself if you feel like the discussion wanders in these meetings.  That perceived wandering could create the connection between two disparate practitioners who are able to regroup and address a really hard or lingering problem.


Creating the Community Activities

“Interaction patterns within [groups] typically account for almost half of all the performance variation between high- and low- performing groups.” – Sandy Pentland


The communities are all about knowledge sharing and creating connection points to cultivate and drive improved idea flow.  In his book Social Physics, Pentland highlights work with a Bank of America call center.  Pentland’s team recommended that they make a simple adjustment in how they schedule breaks. Traditionally team members had staggered breaks to ensure consistent coverage.  Pentland and team proposed aligning their breaks based on a belief that if you increase the interaction of members of the team they would talk about different scenarios they had dealt with on recent calls.  Those conversations would lead to new learnings that would allow for faster call resolution.   The hypothesis held true with one team, and Bank of America eventually changed their model for all of their teams.  The simple intervention of allowing team members to have a shared break was forecast to save Bank of America $15 million per year because of increased productivity.

For each community activities will differ but should consist of at least:

  • Regular formal meetings – putting people together in the same physical room or virtual room using video conferencing does two things. It provides the opportunity for open discussion, and allows community members to see each other.  The discussions have immediate impact on problem resolution, and the face-to-face social interaction drives greater engagement of practitioners thousands of miles apart.  There is something in directly seeing someone discuss their passion – it motivates, excites, inspires and unites.  Don’t underestimate the effect of connecting a face and name to driving interactions between meetings.
  • Informal gatherings – as Pentland noted the frequency of interaction is critical, cultivating interaction points and gatherings furthers the development of the community. This includes social gatherings such as happy hours and meet ups, but also extends to the unplanned meeting.  Through the development of the community, members will naturally engage when they see each other in the hallway, after a meeting on a non-related topic, when they are getting their morning coffee.  The informal touch points are critical and are borne out of the cultivation of the social aspect of the community.
  • Community discussions – between meetings there needs to be a way to raise questions and get opinions of other practitioners. There are numerous traditional options for online collaboration and discussion boards and great new comers like Slack offering tons of functionality. However, don’t wait for the perfect technology to get approved. Go lean first, and as the community starts to prove value then go after the enterprise software.
  • Blog posts – creating an internal blog provides a nice method for a practitioner to organize and present a deeper level of thought on a given topic. Blogs can trigger internal conversations and exposure while also acting as good first drafts for external blog posts.
  • Wiki – wikis are simple collaboration tools that are quick and easy to establish. As the community members solve issues or generate key standards and learnings, wikis offer a great way to create a low cost knowledge library.
  • Community members list – wiki’s, blog posts, and formal best practices documents created by the community are great for static knowledge and reference. However, many situations require more fluid knowledge and this is where maintaining a list of the community members with some basic details on their expertise adds value.  Members can quickly isolate who in the community is most likely to assist them for challenges that go beyond the fundamentals and require historical or domain context to resolve.
Don’t wait for organizational permission

As you set out to establish communities in your organization remember these key points:

Leadership not Authority – communities should be established and lead by thought leaders and individual contributors not by managers.  Engage managers carefully, their support is needed but communities have to be a safe place for sharing otherwise practitioners will hold back.

Aliveness – the community cannot survive without active engagement of the participants.  Therefore the community must be relevant, and have high value.  If you are leading a community ensure that you always have a good measurement of engagement.  Survey members, track participation, monitor views of sites and change course if you start to lose engagement.  Listen to the community and they will ensure it is alive.

Don’t wait for permission – Anyone can start a community, don’t wait for organizational permission to bring the community together. Often what you’ll find is a hunger to come together and engage is already there.  Practitioners have just been waiting for someone like you to lead, and give life to the community.