Best Practices in Developing a Learning Cluster or a Community of Practice

How do you develop a dynamic learning cluster or community of practice with engaged members who are generous in sharing their knowledge and expertise? 

These practices comes from my 15+ years’ experience creating a world-class professional learning network and several communities of practices (COP) for directors, coaches and facilitators.  Successful COPs deliver on these key principles:  Adult learners want an opportunity to talk about what they know and to apply their skills to solving real-life problems. They want a safe space for learning, where it’s comfortable to express what they don’t know and what they want to learn.  It’s important to create an environment that encourages curiosity, learning, and “not-knowing”.

1.     Getting started

In my experience, it’s helpful to start by start by identifying a shared purpose, i.e.: Why do people want to come together?  What is it that they want to learn with, and from, each other?   What resources can they share?  Questions about logistics should be postponed until you have generated enthusiasm for the group – questions such as: How often are we going to do meet? What technology are we going to use? How are we going to schedule meetings?”

  • Start the cluster with each individual identifying his/her learning objectives, and then identify those objectives that are shared by most people.
  • What is it that they want to learn?  What real-life problems can they work on that will benefit from their collective wisdom?
  • Identify topics for discussion. You might choose one of these for the first meeting.
  • Identify the skills that people possess that can be harnessed for a meeting topic, in presentations or in discussions.
  • Spend the bulk of the first meeting on content, not on logistics or on technology.  People are eager to hear “what’s this group about” and “how do I connect to this topic and to this group?”  Save the logistics and technology towards the end of the meeting.
  1. Community Guidelines

Identify guidelines to support connection based on mutual learning and support, that encourage sharing of information.  Mutual learning means coming together to learn with and from one another, without a need to have all the answers.  Design the meetings with a lot of interaction, in pairs or small groups, and then debrief the conversation with the large group.  Small groups allows for maximal participation (you don’t have to wait for your turn among 20+ people), as well as community building and networking.

  1. Participants own the group

This comes from the self-organizing principle of adult learning – adults know what they want/need to learn and they can take responsibility for their learning.  The degree to which participants organize the topics may depend on the nature of the group.  In many cases, it’s up to the participants to identify topics for conversation, and rotate the roles of presenting a topic, choosing a book to read and discuss or generating cases for discussion.

Peer-assists can also be very valuable, where someone presents a case and others help problem-solve. The most effective learning approach is to have participants ask questions to help the presenter get clear about the problem, and begin to offer suggestions towards the middle or end of the session.

  1. Foster Communication between participants

Participants want to be able to communicate with each other between meetings.  Build a platform for multi-directional communication for the purpose of networking, potential collaboration and for people to learn who they can call on with future questions.  This builds the density of connections and strengthens the group for the long run.

That should be enough to get you started!

Questions?  Contact me:

Hush your inner critic!

Have you ever introduced a new tool for a team to use in a facilitated process, and it didn’t go well?  What did you do?

A month ago, I was facilitating a 2–day business process redesign, in which the team had to change a business process from a rolling to an annual basis; there were a lot of moving parts, and this was going to be a difficult change – but they were working diligently on mapping the process.  Some people were enthusiastic about the change, which would ultimately make the process easier to carry out for all the stakeholders.  Others were skeptical – so we had a range from adopters to resistors.

In planning the session with the director, we decided to include DeBono’s Six Thinking Hats in the process, in order to generate innovative thinking.  If you’re not familiar with it, each hat represents a different attitude: optimism, skepticism, someone who wants neutral facts, someone who tends to decide by gut instinct.  When you put on a hat, your task is to try out a different kind of thinking than your go-to mode, and express an opinion related to that color.   So if I’m someone who tends to be skeptical, I would put on the yellow hat for sunshiny optimism, and express why I think this new process is a good idea.

So, I introduced the 6 hats, which were greeted with skepticism.  I asked the group what they’d like to do next, and a young woman said:  Something better than this!  Oh no, I thought, what was I thinking?  Why did I think I could introduce something creative and fun?

I had to leave early the first day, at 3pm, and they continued to work.  When I came back the next morning, guess what?  Turns out that after I left they got into it, and started donning the hats and trying out different attitudes!  They also became more playful with one another, which was an unanticipated outcome – and actually helped improve their working relationship.  So, turns out it was ok to present this tool after all.  Of course, that was after I had chastised myself for introducing the hats.

Lesson learned?   Maybe new things take a while for people to adapt and we shouldn’t judge too quickly.  Maybe my leaving early and not watching them allowed them to play with the hats.  It also provides data about the culture of the team – are they serious with each other? can they be playful? – which would inform a potential growth area for the team.  In fact, when I followed up with the director one month later, I learned that they were using the hats in their team meetings, and their playfulness was improving the way they worked together.

For myself, I probably shouldn’t be hard on myself when things don’t go as expected.  I had discussed it with the 2 directors who thought it was a good idea, so I didn’t have to own it.  It was a creative approach, and I get credit for that.  So if something doesn’t work in the future, that’s fine, no harm done – as long as I’m/ we’re not attached to the outcome.

“Flipping the Panel”

You’ve heard of “flipping the classroom”??  Well, think about applying that to designing an educational program with a panel of speakers! I had invited 3 panelists to speak on “Changing a System or a Culture” for the Boston Facilitators Roundtable (BFR). When I considered my experience listening to panels, I realized that quite often, after 15 minutes or so I lose interest – i.e. the speakers seem to be repeating what the previous speakers said and I don’t feel engaged. Also, BFR members, and adult learners in general, come with a lot of experience that they want to share with colleagues, so it’s equally important to draw them out and give them a chance to discuss their own experiences.

So, I flipped the panel! I asked participants to discuss their experience and challenges in “changing a system or a culture” in small groups, and had each panelist sit with a small group. After that, I solicited 1-2 key challenges from each group, and captured them on the board; that provided direction to the speakers about what we wanted to hear from them. Then each panelist spoke, and managed to address most of the challenges. We allowed 5 minutes for Q&A after each one. Subsequently, people went back to the small groups, to discuss how they would apply what they heard from the panelists in their own situations. Then we went back to the panelists for one last round of questions. Here’s what two participants gave as feedback:

Brilliant organization of panel- time allotment and breaking into small groups was critical for processing information in a deeper way so that it was well integrated by the end of the event.

Appreciated the small group/lecture format very much.

So, next time you plan a panel, flip it!

Need more ideas for innovative program design?  Email me.

If you have a topic or question about program design that you’d like to see featured here, let me know.

Speak Up?! to Improve Your Team’s Decision Making

Have you ever been in a meeting where an important decision was being made, when you had something important to contribute – and you considered speaking up, but hesitated – and then decided not to say anything? And kicked yourself afterwards for not speaking up?

Chances are we’ve all been in meetings where we didn’t feel safe speaking up. We may have experienced negative outcomes from decisions made in those meetings – anything from unsuccessful rollouts of products to bankruptcy (that’s what I’ve heard when I’ve delivered this workshop.) Why don’t we speak up?


  • We don’t want to rock the boat
  • We feel social pressure to conform
  • Fear of consequences or the cost is too high

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Leading Change – Create a Compelling Vision

Are you trying to initiate change in your organization?  Maybe to increase accountability, to change a business process such as implementing EHR’s (electronic health records), increasing the diversity of staff?  How are you getting people on-board?  How are you describing the change?

I was consulting a few years ago on a change management project, coaching the director of a community corrections agency on leading change.  The director was complaining that her staff were not getting on board; they didn’t understand what she was aiming at and didn’t understand the need for change.  The problem which became readily apparent was how she described the change.  She told staff:  I want us to become an evidence-based organization.   You can understand their confusion!  What does that mean?  What does that look like?

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Leadership Development for Physician Leaders

Physicians are facing many challenges in a rapidly changing health care environment, given the move to ACOs, team based cared, and changes in the payment model. Many of those Smiling senior doctor with stethoscopeworking in hospitals and clinics are finding themselves in leadership positions, which extends beyond their responsibilities focusing on their patients and the “diagnose and fix” model of solving problems. This new role includes knowing how to be a “facilitative leader”, engaging others in problem solving, and understanding how to manage change – things which were not taught in their medical school training. As doctors move into these leadership roles, they interact in new ways with other clinicians, nurses, auxiliary staff, and they may not always be aware of their impact on others and how to optimize their functioning in these new roles.  More and more institutions are designing leadership development programs and employing executive coaches to help physician leaders increase their effectiveness.

I participate in a learning group of coaches and organizational development consultants who work in health care, and recently I facilitated 2 conversations about leadership development, specifically asking: What’s different about coaching physician leaders?

We identified several challenges that are unique to coaching physician leaders, such as:

  • Physicians are used to being individual contributors, so it’s quite a shift to begin leading others – which means engaging other staff, asking questions and fostering collaborative problem solving.
  • Doctors need to change their mindset from “white coat leadership” to “facilitative leadership.”   That skillset includes knowing about change management, how you lead and manage change.
  • Research-oriented physicians, who work by themselves, tend more to introversion – and they may find themselves needing to stretch to extraversion to be more involved with other staff.
  • The role of the leader is often unclear to physicians who do not have mental models of leadership in a clinical setting, nor role models.
  • Some have little desire to do things differently, if seeing patients is what they prefer to do. Many doctors think “I don’t want a boss” or “I don’t need a boss because I’m responsible for my patients, or I run this practice”, as well as, “I don’t want to be a boss”.

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Collective Impact: Convening health-related community organizations

The buzz in health care these days is about health and wellness, making connections between the multiple factors that contribute to wellness, and focusing on how our communities can help keep people healthy. Examples include:

  1. Access to healthy food in communities and in schools; making sure there are grocery stores or supermarkets that are accessible to the community.
  2. Increasing availability of nutritious food – growing food locally, supporting community gardens and farmers’ markets. Making it possible to pay for food at farmers’ markets with SNAP coupons. (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).
  3. Physical activity – access to recreational activities, availability of outdoor parks and sporting areas, existence of sidewalks, clearing snow from those sidewalks.
  4. Emotional and social well-being, including mental health; reading to children to support early childhood literacy.

Live Well Watertown (LWW) is a coalition formed by a CHNA grant (community health network area) to support LWW large groupcommunity-based health activities.  LWW is working on town policies on food, nutrition and physical activity. LWW conducted a Community Forum in March 2015 which brought together 22 health-related organizations.

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“Recovering Perfectionists” – Anyone you know?

Have you worked with anyone who has a perfectionist tendency?  Or are you a perfectionist? If so, how has it been to work with yourself?! Tiring, no? Always going the extra mile to make sure that things are perfect – and that no-one will be able to complain – right?

I’ve worked with several “recovering perfectionists” (smile) who wanted to lighten their load. They realize how difficult it is to maintain such a demanding level of performance; they struggle to categorize tasks into “must be perfect” and “darn good is also acceptable”. A few years ago I was at a potluck dinner, where one woman, Sue, brought a raspberry pie. It oozed red around the corners, so Sue complained that it wasn’t perfect. Could have fooled us – we thought it was fabulously delicious – so perfection was in the eye, or tastebuds, of the beholder!

When we go overboard in one direction or another, there is usually a story that we’re telling ourselves about that. For example, I may tell myself that I have to prove that I’ve been productive, given the amount of time I’ve spent working on a deliverable. I may not consider if my time was well-spent, or if the deliverable might have been fine with less time. Or we might think that being perfect gives us a certain edge over others, i.e. “If I don’t do it perfectly, I’ll lose my power.”

When I design curriculum for a workshop, I like to find cartoons or clip art that superbly convey a point I’m trying to make. I can spend hours (half-hours) looking for “the right image”.  I end up wasting a lot of time that would be better spent on other content. What I’ve discovered is that it’s often serendipity when I come across a great cartoon or image –  not the result of a long search.   You might ask: How does it serve me to go down the rabbit-hole of searching?   I might want to impress the audience, or, the image might be a crutch if I think the content won’t engage the audience.

In my coaching I work with my client to explore the story they are telling themselves. What does perfectionism stand for? What’s hiding behind that? There’s almost always an interesting story behind their behavior. Trying to change our behavior without understanding the underlying story is rarely effective – that’s why New Year’s Resolutions rarely work.

Raspberry pie anyone?!

Action Learning: Collaborative Coaching of Non-Profit Directors.

What do you get when you bring together a group of coaches/consultants and 8 executive directors?? Here’s what the directors reported:

  • Most remarkable 5-person therapy!  I got a number of great small Aha!s which confirmed the good things that we’re doing, as well as identifying areas for my personal growth.
  • Clarity – what I came in with was not what I ended up talking about.  Really good therapy!
  • Phenomenal process!  Such useful information in a safe way.  Hugh Aha!  I had issues that were really symptoms of a bigger problem. It’s seldom that I get to sit down with folks in a non-threatening process.  The team got me down to the data and away from my assumptions.  I got great insights, ideas and steps forward.  I appreciated the expertise and the variety of insights.

The Boston Facilitators Roundtable (BFR) is an organization that I lead, whose members are coaches and Organizational Development consultants.   In Nov. 2014, we offered the third iteration of a very successful event hosting executive directors (ED) for collaborative coaching by BFR members.  Working in small groups, consultants ask questions to help the directors get clear about their problems, examine their assumptions and frame their future action.  As often happens, a director realizes that their initial framing of the problem is not accurate, and they arrive at a clearer understanding of the actual problem.

I designed the successful format for this program with input from other BFR members. There are a few key elements to the process:

  • The director presents an organizational challenge, and consultants get 5 minutes to ask clarifying questions, not more.
  • Then the consultants discuss the problem among themselves for 10-15 minutes, while the director sits back and listens. Directors report that this sitting-back part is fascinating, as they listen in to experienced consultants discussing their problem.
  • The directions to the consultants are very clear about the purpose of this event: to help the directors get clarity. As good coaches, we know the importance of asking useful questions, and holding back on giving advice. At a later point in the format, the directors usually ask for suggestions – and that’s when we think it’s ok to provide advice, not earlier.

This is an Action Learning program, which is designed to provide multiple layers of learning:

  1. The directors benefit from the coaching and consultation from consultants
  2. The consultants benefit from hearing the approach and the questions that each person asks, which builds our coaching skills.

As President of the Boston Facilitators Roundtable, it’s gratifying when the directors and BFR members get high value from our programs.  To read more feedback, click here.

This program would be beneficial for any senior managers, directors or board chairs.  Also, if you’re a foundation that would like to multiply the value of learning for your grantees, let’s talk.  We can augment this program to include a coaching piece to help directors or board chairs recognize their personal dynamics and how that impacts the board and/or the director.  Let me know if you’d be interested in having such a program for your organization.

Polarity management: A Leadership Tool to Manage change

I recently facilitated a workshop on Polarity Management to a group of surgeons and doctors, who found it extremely beneficial. I had a “before and after” experience when I learned the model – after you see it, you think, “This is so obvious; how did I not know about this model?” In the workshop, we used the tool to discuss the polarity of focus on Cost AND focus on Quality, in which people identify the upsides and the downsides of both poles. The reason this is AND rather than “versus”, is that in a polarity both poles are interdependent and necessary to the system. You can’t get rid of a focus on cost, just like you can’t get rid of concern for quality – you need both to make the system work.


The discussion helped surface several other polarities that happen in their hospitals, and uncovered assumptions that some staff have. For example, one assumption is that “anybody going after quality is blind to cost”. Something else that goes unstated is our interpretation of “quality” – how each of us defines it, and how we as a group define it – another necessary conversation. Each case calls for a facilitated discussion in which there is collective “sense-making”. That means that people share their interpretations and surface their assumptions, so that the group comes to an agreement about the definition of terms.

The workshop also helped identify some discussions that are calling to be had in health systems, especially in light of the Affordable Care Act (ACA). For example, one participant articulated this important question: “How do we set different measurement standards to help us resolve this polarity?” Some participants commented that many doctors are anxious about how the ACA will affect patient care, and their income. Others question physicians’ motivation for choosing medicine, which for some/many seems to have changed over the years, from initial idealism to a focus on money. So you can see the value of the conversation that went beyond the initial polarity.

Lastly, the piece that emerged for me as a facilitator is my interest in providing a safe space for health care providers to talk about their fears and concerns. One format for this is to invite physicians from various health centers to a group conversation; being the sole representative from a health center might give people the freedom to say what they really think, without fear of their colleagues’ disapproval or condemnation. I imagine other people have been thinking about this. What ideas have you heard for this safe arena for sharing?