How to Build Performance Communities

By: Seth Kahan

If you want a group of volunteers to work like a beehive where members carry out tasks at great speed and with significant results, performance communities may be the solution. Learn how to build them and accelerate change at the same time. (Titled "The Hive Mentality" in print version.)

Imagine a community in your organization where people work together with colleagues, stakeholders, business partners, and even competitors to share what they know, achieving results far beyond what any one person can accomplish alone. These communities work interdependently to advance major initiatives among their own people. The learning in these groups takes place in real time, drawing on all levels of experience to take performance and output to extraordinary new levels. I call these unique groups performance communities, and they can help accelerate change in organizations.

Think of a buzzing hive. Hear the hum. Feel the vibration of bees at work. According to research on bees, no one is in charge, not even the queen bee. Each bee "knows" what to do. They carry out their cooperative tasks based on cues they receive from each other and the environment, yet the bees work together as if guided by a greater intelligence. Together their efforts culminate in the productivity of the hive. They build the honeycomb and line it with honey at speeds that inspire the imagination. What if you could watch a project team, a meeting, a committee, or a group of volunteers turn into a beehive?

Dimensions of Successful Performance Communities

Communities form all the time inside, outside, and across an organization. They form spontaneously in coffee shops, living rooms, hallways, and boardrooms after the meeting ends. Yet most organizations today do not make use of community. They instead rely on traditional management hierarchies to oversee and get work done. This is one reason that building performance communities can be a strategic advantage. However, for these communities to be successful, they must have these three dimensions:

Business benefits. These draw organizations to invest in the community. The returns can come in a variety of forms, including improved operational performance, innovation, and increased engagement.

Community concerns. These are the causes that bring together the members of a community. They are the shared motivation that drives people to collaborate in the first place, including executing a high-value task, championing a social cause, or contributing to a field of expertise.

Participant payoffs. This is the individual level that motivates each person to show up and give his or her best. Since performance communities operate under volunteer principles, the payoffs must be clear, inspiring, and compelling, such as skill building, problem solving, and proximity to power and influence.

Here's an example of a functioning performance community: Professional constituencies meet with the CEO and senior management team at biweekly coffees. In a relaxed atmosphere, they brainstorm how strategic objectives can gain better traction internally. When they go back to their offices, they talk about the meeting with their colleagues. The follow-up conversations bring important insights that feed the next coffee with the CEO and spread news organically. The business benefits of this community include increased traction for strategy and grassroots communications. Community concerns include the opportunity to influence leadership and access to resources, and participant payoffs include proximity to power and professional visibility.

Building a Performance Community

In the course of building performance communities, not only do you have to consider the three dimensions mentioned previously, but management tasks also have to change from supervising subordinates to enabling colleagues. In other words, managers need to cultivate relationships built on trust and healthy growth. Here are 10 techniques:

1. Share the idea with everyone who has a stake in success. This is like a mini list of your MVPs. Let's say that you want to start performance communities to address issues unique to Africa, Western Europe, and the Pacific Rim. Ask yourself who has a stake in your success in these regions and whose interest is already aligned with their success as regions.  Approach these people, and tell them you intend to form a community.

2. Interact with potential members. Get out of your office and meet with those who may join. Ask for ideas, suggestions, and the names of others who would benefit by taking part. Listen to understand their perspective and concerns, especially if they are different from your own.

3. Identify a social architect.A social architect is someone who understands and facilitates the interactions among members. This should be a people person with strong interpersonal communication skills and a genuine desire to help the community succeed. Responsibilities include planning and facilitating events, fostering professional development, and cultivating the health of the performance community.

4. Identify resident experts. These people have deep knowledge in the community's domain. They are sources of guidance for group decisions and will attract others to participate. They wield their authority through know how and experience rather than by decree.

5. Invite people to participate. Communicate to people through their preferred media. If they are telephone people, call them. If they are email people, write them. If they read Discovery magazine, put an ad in it. In your invitation, be clear about business benefits, community concerns, and participant payoffs. Tell them what you are hoping to accomplish and ask them to be part of the effort.

6. Make it easy for members to contact each other. As soon as the performance community forms, publish a directory with phone numbers and email addresses. You may wish to include a section in the directory that members fill in any way they want. Personal information should not be frowned on as it may start conversations and foster relationships.

7. Invite open discussions. Allow divergent ideas; don't push consensus. If small groups form in your performance community to champion alternative perspectives, help them explore these. This multiplicity of perspective bolsters the work. Tackling issues from many sides is one of the strengths of a community.

8. Communicate, communicate, and communicate. Do everything you can to keep people in the loop. Come to know your community's preferred types of communication and do whatever works. Construct communiqués so that they invite participation. For example, rather than provide exhaustive minutes, highlight main points and invite others to fill in gaps.

9. Stay open to continued suggestions. Performance communities evolve, and this is normal. A community is a living thing and changes over time. Create ways for new ideas to be reviewed and processed easily without derailing progress.

10. Develop presentation toolkits. Make it easy for members to share their work with colleagues and other interested people. These toolkits support your group's success. Each member will reach into his or her social network to support and endorse the work the group is doing.

Performance Communities at Their Best

Once performance communities are built, it is important that they stay top of mind and are continuously cultivated to perform at the highest level. Etienne Wenger is best known for his groundbreaking work on communities of practice and has broadened his interest to what he calls social learning systems. He identifies four trends that provide valuable insight into how communities work: horizontalization, partialization, personalization, and individualization. Each helps a performance community operate at its highest level.

Horizontalization. Horizontal learning happens among partners who are in it together. Instead of learning being given from teacher to student, it is a peer-to-peer exchange.

Partialization.Today each person's knowledge and expertise is part of a larger puzzle. It is no longer possible for one person to hold the entire body of expertise in a given area. In this sense, we hold an increasingly partial segment of the whole.

Personalization. A person has to want to be involved in order to marshal her total engagement and bring all of her creative resources to bear on a particular issue. Participation and motivation play increasingly important roles, rather than coercion or compliance.

Individualization. For more than 100,000 years, people were born, grew up, lived, and died in a single community. Only in the past few thousand years have we begun to spend portions of our lives in different communities. As a result, we are becoming more and more unique.

These trends require us to shift our approach from a traditional team orientation to a more organic and natural way of understanding how people learn and perform together. For example, organizations must combine vertical and horizontal learning. They can provide a presentation by a leading expert but follow it with a loosely organized conversation in a business-casual environment. Alternately, they can hold multiple events: one where people are exposed to thought leaders, and another that's a peer-to-peer exchange that addresses common challenges. Or they can bring in a facilitator to design and lead a self-organizing process like Open Space or Appreciative Inquiry.

To reflect the idea of partialization, it is important to find ways to include those with varying amounts of time or effort to give. If you limit participation to those who have a lot of time or energy, you may miss important contributions. This leads to a value-based model of participation, rather than one that is time based or effort based. What is important in a performance community is the value generated, not the amount of time or effort expended.

How to Generate Value

Performance communities meet people where they are and draw them into greater participation by providing real value. This makes it possible for people to self-select their point of contribution based on personal preference and style with regard to time, effort, and visibility. The amount of time and effort people give to their performance community varies widely but is often independent of the amount of value they generate or receive.

It is the value, then, that generates the pull, not the time spent or energy contributed. A healthy community creates a current that pulls people along, encouraging and enabling them to create greater and greater value. Because value flows both ways, enriching the giver as well as the recipient, this current also increases the value received. In other words, the more people give, the more they get, thanks to the current.

This is important when in the process of getting change right, because it makes clear that simply having a lot of time, putting in extra effort, or carrying high visibility does not guarantee increased contribution. Rather, the value that is generated for the change effort, the community, and the participants is the true indicator of positive impact.

Don't measure a community's performance by how often it meets, how much time is spent putting together its documentation, or how much they are seen by others. Instead, turn your attention toward the business benefits, community concerns, and participant payoffs. This is where the value is identified and can be tracked.

Business benefits. These are owned by the sponsoring organization. They are the justification for the investment of time, money, and people in the performance community. The organization providing these resources is the sponsor of the performance community. The clearer the arrangement between the sponsor and the performance community is, the easier it is to understand the value exchange.

Metrics should be developed jointly with members of the performance community. They lay out what needs to be accomplished and the resulting resources that will be made available.

Community concerns. Performance-community members need to determine the community's concerns, representing their combined interests and goals, to be successful, because this is where the value resides at the community level.

Value given and value received is measured internally in a community by the ability to carry out shared concerns. Creating a community mandate is an excellent way to cultivate the community's concerns. This may include creating a statement of purpose or a set of goals tied directly to the community's concerns. It is important to turn back to this mandate periodically to evaluate progress and raise issues, if necessary.

Participant payoffs. Communities are hands on and built through relationships among real people. All participants assess the value they receive in ways unique to their needs and changing circumstances. This is why it is important that someone in the community be in touch with participants by engaging in conversation, opening up the door to new ideas and new ways of generating individual value, and harvesting the unique experience of the members.

By building performance communities that enable colleagues, generate value, and take into account the trends that are affecting today's community needs, organizations will be able to push ahead change much more successfully and with buy-in from everyone involved. It no longer is about one person telling others what to do and how to do it. Rather, it is about members and volunteers coming together to collaborate to bring about change that they find value in.

Seth Kahan is a motivational speaker and keynote speaker who uses storytelling and communication exercises to help build strong business communities and ignite positive organizational change. This article was adapted with permission from his book Getting Change Right, copyright 2010, Jossey-Bass. Email: [email protected]

Sidebar: Ramping Up Performance Communities

A performance community that takes off is something to treasure. When they shift to a new level of delivery, the results are stunning and obvious.

Community cannot be mandated. If the boss walks in and demands, "Everybody collaborate!" it is not a given that a community will perform. However, performance communities can be deliberately stimulated to achieve great leaps in performance by doing the following:

Let participants know they are valued, and be specific. By explicitly identifying people's achievements, contributions, talent, and relevant experience, you invoke their participation in these areas while at the same time alerting other members of the community to the value they can generate through interaction. Make it known to each person why he or she is valued. Be explicit. Opportunities to do so include making a public statement at a community meeting, documenting members' experience in a directory of expertise, or holding a reception where participants are sought out and recognized for their professional contributions.

Frequently summarize, support, and challenge the community in the context of business goals. This three-step process has a strong effect on community performance, injecting great force into productivity. It works most powerfully when the person who delivers this material is someone the community trusts deeply and who knows the community and its members well. The more frequently this is done—and it can be done up to weekly—the more powerful the results can be. You must of course take into consideration how often the performance community meets.

Create opportunities for members of the community to address organizational leadership. Speaking to leadership is extremely valuable to members and the community. It provides professional visibility, generates a visceral sense of contribution, and accelerates impact by the community and the larger organization. Options including designing a presentation around the performance community's contribution to the change effort or volunteering the community's efforts to lead an interactive session that addresses emergent issues of great concern.

Sidebar: Read More from Seth Kahan

Read "The Right Kind of Change," an online-exclusive interview with Seth Kahan, where he talks about why communication matters and how to build a culture that's ready for change.