What grassroots leadership can teach us about developing an inclusive learning culture to develop successful Communities of Practice.

I recently spoke at the CIPD Festival of Work Conference  at the Communities of Practice Ignite session. In the follow up panel session, we discussed the challenge inherent in working with diverse groups of people, many of whom have not worked together, or even met before. As largely voluntary groups, CoPs require a very different approach to learning and leadership but one that all leaders can learn some valuable lessons from where hierarchies, roles and being right become largely irrelevant.

The challenge centres on how to inspire involvement, build momentum, and create ideal conditions for people to contribute fully and meaningfully over a sustained period. The framework needs to be strong enough to withstand challenge and debate whilst being agile enough to hold uncertainty. The role of leaders become one of facilitator and sense maker and being a guiding light when things go wrong or get stuck, because they will.

How can you create the ideal conditions for people to contribute fully and meaningfully in the absence of traditional incitements, with little resource to attract or retain involvement?

In my experience, ironically, this is the ideal starting point from which to build a team and culture capable of real long-term innovation and growth. In many ways, all the challenges and opportunities inherent in Communities of Practice are reflected in the narrative of successful grassroots organisations, where having no initial resource proves no barrier to successful outcomes.

With little more than a clear connecting purpose, grassroots leaders are masters at galvanising involvement, bringing together a random group of people to create a cohesive team able to work together with transformative results. In the world of grassroots innovation there are no CV’s, interviews or recruitment process, often the most disparate, under qualified, under experienced group of people achieve extraordinary things. The key is leaving assumptions at the door to engage people fully and inclusively, whilst deploying power and ownership to everyone.

3 SpeakTo steps inspired by grassroots leaders to help businesses and communities achieve a CoP culture:

1. Engage, engage, engage and leave assumptions at the door

Get to know the people around you to understand what motivates people and how to properly mobilise the group. Focus is less on roles and hierarchy more on building relationships and networking – here the informal, light touch has greater power.

2. Clear about Direction but be open to the route

Be clear about the purpose of the group, but be open to the route to create an open, inclusive environment where people can be relaxed about contributing. We all know that learning is as much about failure as it is about success, so build an environment where being wrong can be the beginning of a journey and not the end.

3. Start small but start somewhere…

To avoid just becoming a talking shop, which is frustrating and demotivating something needs to happen . Small actions are the lifeblood of learning, and collective thinking. With reduced risk comes a natural level of freedom that supports real exploration and discovery, that builds confidence and importantly, allows for open and honest feedback, critical to learning.

Developing this approach develops an ‘innovation muscle’ within a group, business or community that enables people to achieve far more with much less. You will be surprised where ideas come from and how they grow within this informal but dynamic approach to learning and development, often leading to extraordinary insights and actions.