Chapters at Work

3 May 2021

Are you talking about books?

Kinda. Back in ye olden days (e.g. the 6th century) monks and priests would come together periodically to read a chapter from the bible or a section of their book of rules for the order, maybe kick back with a glass of chartreuse, and have a discussion. They built “chapter rooms” or “chapter houses” to hold these meetings and, eventually, the idea of a chapter as a group of people came into being.

What does this have to do with my agile team?

Many orgs are adopting an operating model that includes multiple small, cross-functional teams (sometimes called “squads”) that act almost like mini start-ups with the autonomy to design, develop, release, and support their own products and services in the ways they choose. The most notable was Spotify with their so-called “Spotify Model”.

Small, cross-functional, autonomous teams are terrific for removing dependencies, sharing product knowledge, keeping the focus on the customer, and keeping systems lightweight and easy to maintain (you built it, you run it). The model does, however, present a few problems.

Being the only data-scientist or Michelin-starred chef in your squad can be a bit lonely. How do you know you’re doing things the best way? Where do you go for help or to share best practice? Who are your mentors and coaches? Moreover, when the time comes to move to another squad, it can feel like moving to a completely different company if there’s no broad agreement about how to do X.

Chapters solve these problems and more. A chapter is simply a group of people who do similar kinds of work (think front-end development, data-science, or cake decorating). Note: many orgs have started using the team “Communities of Practice” which avoids the religious history of the word “chapter” and does a better job of communicating what they actually are. I prefer “Communities of Practice” but use the terms interchangeably.

How do chapters work?

Like any community, a chapter or Community of Practice provides support, a safe place to learn and get help, a place to practice things and teach others, a place to help an entire group get better, stronger, and more reliable in how they do things while still embracing new methods and continuously improving.

On the surface, chapter activities are pretty ordinary and include:

  • Getting folks together to talk about their work
  • Sharing and defining what good practice looks like (often setting and adopting standards)
  • Helping each other when times are tough
  • Celebrating together!
  • Learning from & inspiring each other (sometimes by reading books, job-shadowing, watching videos, attending conferences, or presenting)
  • Helping to define the career path for people in the community

How do I set one up?

Setting up a chapter or Community of Practice doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be as simple as doing the following:

  • Finding people who do what you do
  • Getting those folks together
  • Nominating a willing chapter leader (often this is already defined by the org)
  • Creating a “chapter charter” (see below)
  • Creating some shared goals (e.g. OKRs)
  • Defining a backlog of things to do as a chapter (books, standards, career paths, new tools, coffee dates, nights out, etc)

What’s a “Chapter Charter”?

Similar to a team charter, a “Chapter Charter” or “Chapter ID Card” is a type of agreement among chapter members about how the chapter will operate. It’s typically presented as a single-page document in a shared location like a wiki. Here are some ideas for what you can include:

  • What is the chapter called?
  • Who are the members?
  • When/how do they meet?
  • How do we welcome new members?
  • How do we celebrate birthdays?
  • What shared events do we hold?
  • How do we run them?
  • How do we communicate between events? (Slack? Teams? Email? Carrier pigeon?)
  • How much time do chapter members spend doing “chapter stuff” (2hrs per week? 1hr per week? or 5% of their time, etc.)
  • What artefacts does the chapter maintain (e.g. a backlog, testing standards, a guide for new members, list of favourite Star Trek episodes, OKRs, etc).
  • What goals does the chapter have (e.g. quarterly OKRs?)
  • What discussions have taken place? (e.g. meeting minutes)
  • What other decisions has the chapter made?
  • What are a few things that folks outside the chapter might want to ask the chapter about?

What’s the role of the chapter leader?

The chapter leader has two key roles:

Firstly, to facilitate the chapter’s activities (these could be shared, rotated, or delegated):

  • Setting up sessions
  • Agreeing goals and next actions
  • Capturing & sharing outputs

Secondly, to coach & line manage members of the chapter:

  • Help them to evaluate their performance
  • Enabling them to achieve their peak potential
  • Tackle issues they might be encountering in their squad or generally with the org

How do you disband a chapter?

When the time comes (e.g. if we’re not decorating cakes, anymore) you might pause or even close the chapter.

  • Determine if you’re pausing or closing the chapter
  • Find new “homes” for any remaining members (technically the chapter probably will still exist if it has members)
  • Capture all the learnings and outputs from the chapter somewhere that future 
  • Update all your materials (e.g. chapter charter, wiki pages, etc) to reflect that the chapter is inactive.

What if my organisation is too small for a community of practice?

If your organisation doesn’t have several folks doing the same type of work, it’s even more important to find a community where you can engage and grow and find mentorship. You might need to do this via an external community which might function the same way. Fortunately, there are plenty of websites and platforms designed to connect professionals across organisations who work in similar disciplines.

Try it out!

As with many workplace innovations, the best way to get comfortable with chapter or communities of practice is simply to create one and try them out. Look around your organisation and see where the similar people are. Get together, share the above, and see what happens!