Thursday, 4 July 2019

Non-working groups

Have you ever been involved in a working group? Or a guild, or tribe or any other kind of informal cross-functional special interest group? Yes me too. Lots of them.

And how many of those groups lasted more than 4 or 5 sessions? Thought so.

Did any of them pan out something like this...

  • Session 1:

    "This was so great we should do this regularly, is monthly OK with everyone?"


  • Session 2 - One month later:

    "This was so great. Who wants to run the next one?"

  • Session 3 - Six weeks later after a postponement:

    "This was useful but - turnout is down - is monthly too often? Shall we do every other month? No-one's volunteered to run the next one but I've got an idea that might kind-of work so let's do that."

  • Session 4 - Three months later after rearranging 3 times and attempting to reignite interest in the work community social media site:

    "OK so we had 3 people attend. Thanks for coming ... why don't we wait and schedule the next one when someone has a subject they want to cover?"

  • Session 5 - 6 months later with only the original two members now in attendance:

    "I'm canceling the recurring meeting and shutting the group chat down as it's been dead for weeks."

...?

I'm guessing quite a few - I've certainly cancelled more than one monthly lunchtime outlook meeting myself. I don't think that it's necessarily right to view such situations as failures. In fact, sometimes I think the only failure is in thinking that every burst of collective enthusiasm to improve has to turn into a regular event.

A rush of excitement

I'm genuinely inspired by the energy that prompts the creation of informal improvement groups. People who are genuinely engaged with their work will always discuss the challenges they face. Their enthusiasm will seek out like-minded souls over water-coolers and coffee machines sharing ideas to improve. Before you know it a working group has emerged with great plans of regular meet-ups to change their working world for the better.

But the reality is that often the early enthusiasm wanes quickly and attendance can drop rapidly. I've been involved in setting up and driving so many groups and initiatives in all levels of my work that I can openly admit that those that have lasted are vastly outweighed by those that ran out of steam.

Why enthusiasm dwindles

Given the enthusiasm that abounds at the start of these endeavours, why is it that people with a common interest so often struggle to maintain levels of attendance needed to keep a regular meetup going?

Some of the reasons I've seen

  • Repeated conversations - the problem with groups created to address specific challenges within a workplace is that they are often borne of frustration with little scope outside of the group to elicit change. The attendees are brought together through common pain as much as common interest and the sessions quickly descend into the same rinse and repeat frustration based conversations.
  • Not enough topics - groups often arrange sessions around specific topics to provide focus and allow people to decide whether to attend. One challenge I've seen here is that often the originators of the group have a few 'hot topics' in mind when they set up the group. Once these have been covered off the well of inspiration quickly runs dry. (Its a bit like putting together a Playlist on Spotify only to realize that the 3 'similar' songs that inspired the list are the only ones that actually sound right for the list.)
  • Not enough hosts - this is probably the biggest challenge to maintaining any kind of meetup long term. Whether internal or more social, responsibility will inevitable end up falling to one person drive the ongoing sessions. Unless that one person is particularly strong at researching new topics or drumming up volunteers then the number of people willing to host a session quickly drops off.
  • Others are too busy - the biggest challenge to getting attendance from outside the organizers is conflict with other work. Expecting people to give up time for regular attendance to a group is only realistic if they get a lot out of coming to the group. Often once the sessions have moved on from the burning needs that initiated the group then the relative value drops to the point that, for most concerned, getting their work done becomes a higher priority.
  • The founder gets distracted - the people that set these things up are, by their nature, interested in tackling immediate problems and often once a group is up and running their attention will stray to other more pressing concerns. Only those with a strong candidate to take up the reins will last when this happens.
  • Too many groups - inevitably with and engaged culture there can be many interest groups and subjects competing for attention which will impact on people's ability to devote time to any one meet-up. People need to be selective with their time and will prioritise aggressively anything that is additional to their 'contracted' work.

Does this mean they failed?

It is a bit depressing when the inevitable outlook cancellation signals the end of another interest group. Does this mean that the group failed? I personally don't like to think in those terms.

Rather than considering that a group has failed, instead I'd ask the question of what made the attendees think that a regular group was needed in the first place. What I've seen is that the decision process to establish a regular meetup group is based purely on the fact that the founders have ideas for more than one session. It's an understandable but rather illogical decision that a few good ideas is enough for a regular meeting slot and in that decision lies the basis of failure of many such groups.

Tips for successful in-company groups

In my experience there are some ways to give groups a better chance of enjoying longevity. Some tips and ideas can help groups to stay the course

  • Start small and grow. I've found it's better to get a small number of hardcore people involved and coming regularly than trying to get half the company coming on a regular basis. One special interest group in test automation that I founded originally had three members but grew over time due to the fact that more people wanted to be involved, help and learn. Not all of them came each time but the central core unit ensured that it maintained momentum over the long term.
  • Base the group on continous improvement. There's nothing wrong with repetition, in fact reviewing, refining and improving is a great way to drive success. Having a group with a regular format that incrementally chips away at an aspirational goal can be better than trying to present and entirely new session each time
  • Link it to work. It sounds depressing but the fact is that groups that in my experience groups that are linked to achieving more aspirational goals related to the work people do have better staying power than more tangential topics. I think the reason for this is that people can still justify coming along when they are busy, and actually place a high value on getting away from hard busy work on something that they can reasonably prioritise.
  • Tie them to personal development - if you're fortunate enough to be in a leadership position then ensuring that people's personal development goals support and are supported by interest groups help to motivate people to attend. I used to establish personal development goals for testers to spend time researching testing topics, in order to present back to the testing team in regular 'lunch and learn' sessions. This allowed us to progress personal development, whilst learning as a group and maintaining momentum for the social cohesion that comes with informal group activity.
  • Pick a format rather than a topic - I had good fun with an infrequent session called 'Wednesday cinema' where I'd find short films on interesting subjects - process, technical, technique - and the group would watch and discuss them on Wednesday lunchtimes. It was a nice format that we could use to explore new ideas and concepts, the beauty being that any subject of interest could be included.

Alternatives to ongoing meetups

The key point of this post is not, however, to guide on achieving the goal of establishing successful long term meetup groups. Rather it is to suggest that this does not have to be the goal at all. Some initiatives don't need to have a long life to be hugely valuable to indiduals and the companies in which they work.

Rather than defaulting to a regular session, why not consider the following?

  • Simply having one session at a time and deciding at the end of each session whether anyone has an idea for another one. Once the handful of ideas that prompted the session run out, there's no embarrassment in stopping.
  • Agree on a much lower cadence than your initial enthusiasm might want e.g. quarterly allows four good ideas to see you through a whole year!
  • Brain-storm how many session ideas you have and establish a relevant cadence and expectation for the initial lifetime of the group based on that.
  • Have a slot for any interest sessions at all and let different people run different sessions without fixing the agenda

It may seem to you that there's no difference in the above and just letting something wind down. I disagree. There's a sense of failure that comes with having to cancel a regular session that is hard to shake. If this carries over into the same person not wanting to try to establish something new, this is a real shame. Personally I'd rather see engaged and motivated people maintaining their enthusiasm through trying some different ideas over time, than see them disheartened after their first endeavour doesn't last. After all a greater shame than a working group that doesn't last is one that never happens because no-one has the passion to try in the first place.

Photo by Jonas Jacobsson on Unsplash

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