Wherever you are in the world, it is highly likely that your routine has been disrupted by restrictions on movement that have been implemented to slow down the spread of the COVID-19 virus. There have been a whole range of significant changes thrown at citizens throughout the world, with relatively short notice. I suspect it has been (and will continue to be) a period of adjustment for all of us.
I live in the UK, and like most of the population, I am pretty much confined to my home. We are (currently) permitted to leave the house once per day for exercise, providing strict rules around physical distancing are observed. I am someone who feels a lot better for exercising daily, so I’ve been leaving the house early (before most people are awake) and going for a brisk walk. I’ve found myself falling into a routine—I tend to take the same route and around the same time each day. Perhaps subconsciously I am finding comfort in the fact that this routine is something I can control… for now at least!
After a few days of following the same route at the same time, I started to recognise the same people at certain points. One person does aerobic exercises near a war memorial; another feeds the swans at Canoe lake (a constructed lake near the seafront). There’s a person who jogs around Canoe lake, another that roller-blades, and there’s me who walks anti-clockwise around the lake five times before heading off. At this time of the morning, everyone is acutely aware of the need to maintain a safe distance from each other. New etiquette has emerged on crossing to the other side of the path to maintain at least 2 metres distance.
Emergent Connection and Community
Almost precisely a week after the “social distancing” measures were imposed, something interesting happened. I noticed, as I went on my regular walk that people were beginning to talk to each other. (In Portsmouth, as with most major cities in the South of the UK, strangers talking to each other is very unusual!). People who had nothing in common other than they exercised in a certain space at a certain time, started chatting in pairs. The sight was a bizarre one—still maintaining a 2m distance, folks were engaging in all sorts of discussions. I saw this happening at every stage of the route that I took.
As I wandered home, with my earbuds in (the closet introvert that I am), I wondered whether this was an example of the seemingly inherent need that many of us have for some type of human connection. See someone for the first time, and they are a stranger. See them three or four times, participating in the same type of activity as you (exercise) and perhaps they seem more approachable. With all of us getting less and less in the way of in-person socialisation in our lives, perhaps this was a natural example of people’s need for social contact playing out? Over time, if these social distancing measures remained in place, I wondered whether this group of people (myself included) might stay in touch, and whether a mini ‘community’ might form. If so, it would have formed entirely through serendipity.
But Can Communities Be “Forced” To Form?
Now, here’s the irony. Imagine someone in “power” tried to compel us to be part of a community. If a leaflet came through my door from the local council stating “YOU MUST BE AT THE SEAFRONT AT 05:00 AND JOIN WITH OTHERS. YOU ARE PART OF A COMMUNITY”, I would likely protest. From my perspective, this is the stuff of dystopian fiction and dictatorships. The exercise community that seems to be forming exists because it is wanted and serves a purpose to those who are in it. This sounds logical, doesn’t it? To force a community would be crazy, wouldn’t it…?
So now think about how ‘professional communities’ are formed. We join an organisation, and are given some form of ‘professional identity’. A label that we may or may not like, which may or may not actually represent what we do. I refer to myself as a ‘Business Analyst’. However, I secretly consider myself to be a member of a range of professional communities—I use Systems Thinking just as much as Business Analysis in my work, but that idea doesn’t always ‘fit the mould’ when it said explicitly.
Indeed, look inside any organisation and you’ll probably find some groups labelled as “Communities of Practice”. Yet these almost certainly won’t have emerged. The practitioners within them will likely have little to no say over the scope or direction of the community, and probably all they have in common is a particular job title, job family or reporting line. There will be mandated meetings, and there will be an inevitable focus on “knowledge sharing”. Somebody will set up a “knowledge repository” (which, when you peel away the gloss will end up being a badly implemented Sharepoint site, where people dump stuff without any thought on how it can be found in the future…). If we agree that mandated “exercise community” wouldn’t work, what makes us think that mandated “professional communities” would work?
These types of mandated communities so often (in my experience at least) fizzle out. They aren’t driven by a need from the members, they are driven primarily by the needs and perspectives of managers or those in power. They aren’t really communities, they are more like teams. That isn’t a good or a bad thing; its just different, but it has somehow become en-vogue to use the term ‘communities’. However, “real” emergent communities do exist in organisations—and they span organisations too. They are generally under-the-radar and beyond the control of managers. A lunchtime book club brings together people with a common interest from all over an organisation (who might then move on to work together on a project). A professional association brings together self-identified folks who are passionate about their role irrespective of where they work. Forums, conferences, even training courses can act as temporary communities, and can help to amplify a sense of connection. They exist for as long as those involved have the energy to keep them going. If they don’t provide utility; if they don’t enable value to be realised from the perspective of those involved then they fizzle out. And rightly so.
Leaders Create The Conditions And Cultivate Communities
Of course, it is possible to cultivate communities within organisations, and there are organisations that have done this successfully. However, it needs to start with considerations of the needs and aspirations of all the members of that potential community, not exclusively the management. Membership of a community ought to be optional. If you have to compel someone to be part of something, it certainly isn’t a ‘community’. If you have to coerce people to attend a quarterly meeting, that probably says something about how useful the meeting really is. And communities will change and fizzle out—the boundaries are malleable and open to interpretation, they aren’t fixed in stone by a leader. People ought to be able to be members of multiple communities. For me, this is where the learning happens.
One thing is for sure: Rebadging a “team” as a “community of practice” is management theatre. Cultivating the conditions where communities can thrive is a sign of authentic leadership.
What are your views? Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing!
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About the author:
Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.
To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit www.blackmetric.com