A close up two people sitting at a bench-style table with their laptops and notepads open

Since early 2019, subject experts across Shelter have been setting up Communities of Practice (CoPs): cross-organisational groups of practitioners of the same discipline who meet regularly. The goal? To bring alignment, collaboration, and a shared understanding of what good looks like. CoPs can define best practice, create learning opportunities, reduce duplication, or be used as support networks.

Two years into that process, we caught up with some of our practice leads and others involved in the running of our CoPs, for a blog series about what they had learned.

In the first instalment, we take a look at the Product CoP.

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The product Community of Practice is Shelter’s longest-standing CoP, starting in 2017 as an informal group, before there was any kind of official charter in place. Having gone through several iterations, its goals are now threefold: learning how to apply a product approach to meeting organisational objectives, using the space to reflect and improve, and offering members peer support.

‘It’s important to reflect on our product practice because all of our different product teams work in very different ways,’ says Caspar Below, Shelter’s Head of Digital. ‘Some of that is by design, some of that has grown organically. Basically, we want to use this opportunity to get closer to best practice, to review what's happening in the product sphere.’

How the product CoP fell asleep

To go from a concept to a fully self-sustaining Community of Practice is hard, and it takes time. It’s common for CoPs to fail, usually at some point between formation and maturity (for more on CoP maturity, see Emily Webber’s maturity model). They can fail for any number of reasons.

The product CoP gradually fell asleep, before going on a six-month hiatus.

‘It was very focused on senior leadership, so someone who was the most senior product person leading and facilitating the group rather than it being a shared responsibility,’ says Caspar.

‘When that person then becomes very busy or involved in other things, the community of practice just sort of moves down the priority list and it quickly became just another thing.

‘I think it wasn't helped by the fact that it was a very small community: just a handful of people who all meet in other meetings for other purposes. It actually takes quite a lot of willpower to say no, we're going to use this time only for these specific things that we never get to discuss in any of the other meetings.’

The CoP has recently re-started, but this time with agreed timeslots on a monthly basis. To avoid the previous problem of leaning too heavily on one person, the group now has a facilitation rota, and a loose structure for each meeting.

A place for peer support  

Providing peer support is one of the key areas of focus for the product CoP. When the group re-started, members were keen on one of its uses being a space where they could ask for feedback specifically to inform improvements.

‘We wanted a safe space for product managers to support and learn from each other,’ says Caspar.

‘Problems are usually discussed with a very different perspective or very different take because you're discussing among specialists from the same discipline rather than in a cross-organisational or cross-functional team.

‘In a cross-organisational or cross-functional group, problems are usually discussed with each practitioner bringing a very different perspective or very different take, rather than when you're discussing among specialists from the same discipline.’

The first challenge the CoP tackled was how to improve transparency between different product teams, as they currently work in isolation.

Recent CoP sessions have focused on expanding understanding of agile processes among business stakeholders throughout the organisation, aligning the roadmaps used by the different product teams so that we can discover where there will be gaps in what we can deliver, and improving facets of our practice like the writing of user stories to inform how digital products are created.

In an important recent session, the group looked at how digital products fail, and what can be learnt from that to set them up for success.

The future

Now the Product CoP is back up and running, but it’ll need some time to work towards maturity. The next steps? Clearing a path not just for the Community of Practice, but for the work that comes afterwards.

‘I think it might not be enough to just make space for the CoP,’ says Caspar. ‘You also need to make space for the experiments that come out of it.’

Watch this space.

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If you would like to find out more about Shelter’s Communities of Practice or cross-organisational working, please get in touch with Caspar Below or Eleanor Young.