The Transformative Power of Communities

Allison Pollard

Transformations are bigger than changing practices. Practices can be learned and unlearned almost like flipping a switch to turn a light on or off. Applying practices may change how work is done but may or may not alter our view of work and the world. Transformations involve discovery, exploration, and connecting behaviors to values. Values that become guiding principles for us. Values we believe in so deeply that to live them makes us more authentic. We become changed through transformation because the world is transformed in our eyes.

Scrum Alliance is dedicated to “Transforming the World of Work.” It brings people together who desire to create workplaces that are “joyful, prosperous, and sustainable.” People connect to one another because of their shared connection to this vision. Together we dream who we can be to make it a reality. Being part of this community changes us—we recognize, support, and develop one another through our activities.

Never miss fantastic posts such as this one.

Joining a Local User Group

My agile journey deepened when I became involved in the local DFW Scrum user group. I was a project manager in a small company and trying to bring in the agile practices I’d learned at Certified Scrum Master training. I was having mixed success and trying to learn more. One day I discovered online a meetup for the scrum group in my area. I didn’t know anyone in the group, and I struggled to find anyone to attend with me. I went to the meeting alone.

I showed up, grabbed some pizza, and sat down quietly. I exchanged pleasantries with those sitting nearby if they initiated conversation. I was shy. Lance Dacy, one of the group organizers, introduced the group and its mission: to help us do better today than we did yesterday. It was an honest, simple mission that encouraged me. There was a presentation, and I absorbed as much as I could by taking notes. And at the end of the night, Lance provided sticky notes and asked us to brainstorm future topics. It was my first time meeting the group, and here I was invited to contribute to it—amazing.

I kept going back and discovered that one of my coworkers had worked with the group’s other organizer, Gary McCants, previously. This shared connection made me feel more at home in the group. I felt comfortable chatting with Gary before or after the meetings. We’d talk about what we were trying at work, our struggles, and share advice. Being part of a larger community gave me ideas, a sense of purpose, and courage to try new techniques in my job. The learning I gained from Gary and the group eventually gave me the confidence I needed to become a Scrum Master at a larger company.

A few months after I changed jobs, I became one of the group’s organizers myself. The shy project manager who once barely talked to anyone at meetups was now standing in the front of the room welcoming everyone, sharing the group’s mission, and introducing the topic for the evening. Those 5-10 minutes in front of the group each month grew me as a leader. The feelings of anxiety that I’d once felt speaking in front of a larger group went away. I connected with more people in the group. I contributed to the growth of a fun, supportive learning community. DFW Scrum transformed me into a community builder.

Starting Communities

I delight in forming communities within the organizations where I work to harness people’s creativity and passion to effect change. Bringing people together to solve problems while I remain unattached to the outcomes gives me a similar thrill of excitement that I experience at the theater. As the curtains open and the show begins, I get goose bumps of anticipation. What will happen? What surprises are in store? A connection forms between the audience and players—exciting! Now imagine a group of people exploring ideas, sharing opinions, and making decisions as a group without scripts, choreography, or rehearsals—ELECTRIFYING! Real people talking about real topics with real heart.

A few years ago, I was coaching in an organization that had been using Scrum and was struggling to get to the next level of agility. There were about twenty teams working on the same product, and the challenges were complex. The organization had a monthly lunch and learn event where the agile coaches typically presented relevant topics in a lecture-format. Given that the teams were following Scrum well and faced more complex issues than a lecture could address, we started experimenting with more interactive formats. Despite minor difficulties with people eating pizza while talking, the group loved it. Doing stuff while learning was more fun and effective than passive learning.

We continued to seek ways to engage the group as a whole to improve the organization. At one point, the coaches and leaders recognized that ongoing quality issues could be related to the disparate Definitions of Done across the teams. There was an inclination to start writing a Definition of Done to be communicated to them. And then it was suggested that the month’s lunch and learn be used as a forum for the teams to develop what would become the organization’s Definition of Done.

We kicked off the event by reviewing the quality challenges and concept of Definition of Done with the group. We gave them time to work in small groups. The room filled with conversation as sticky notes and flip charts filled with ideas. The walls began to reflect the high productivity resulting from the activity. Each group reported out its ideas, and a common list was formed. The teams had collectively created the organization’s Definition of Done. It had their buy-in because of their involvement. Team members gained a deeper understanding of collaboration and a shared vision of quality. A community had been created, and the culture was transformed to reflect a bigger “us” mentality that went beyond individual teams.

Inviting Others to the Community

Working with leaders has given me a deeper appreciation for how hard change can be in an organization. Alignment can be a struggle, and leaders often feel isolated as they face challenges supporting new practices and changing the workplace. Introducing leaders to the larger agile community provides them a sense of comfort. “It’s not just us,” I’ve heard. “Wow, I recognized some of the problems we’ve already solved.” Hearing others’ stories connects them to different thinking than their day-to-day office holds.

Some of my favorite user group moments have come from seeing managers excited about ideas they can take back to their workplace. Maybe they take photos of slides as a presenter speaks, animatedly whisper to a colleague sitting nearby, or send a text to coworkers not present—they’ve gained a morsel of wisdom that has unlocked something new and want to make it real. We’re headed in the right direction, we need to watch out for this obstacle, or we need to try this new thing—they leave thinking and feeling differently about their work.

Witnessing leaders share their stories and give back to the community continues the transformative effects. Authenticity captivates the group. Leaders own their agile journeys, claiming their successes and failures along the way. Learning happens for the leaders who are sharing as well as the listeners, strengthening the group’s bonds. By the end, we recognize one another as being part of the agile tribe.

Connecting to Other Communities

Being part of my local agile community also provides ease in connecting to the larger agile community. In my experience, thought leaders respond positively to invitations to share with our group. Sometimes I don’t meet them in person until the night of a user group meeting or even at a conference sometime after that. Using technology to connect us virtually has provided access we would not have otherwise. When one presenter’s flights were cancelled the day of the meetup, we decided to go virtual rather than risk delays due to another flight or traffic.

Meeting other community leaders has been a joyful experience and introduced new ideas and techniques to our group. DFW Scrum grew tremendously over the last four years, and keeping the community spirit alive at a larger size takes care. Other groups have learned from the various meeting formats we’ve tried, and we even supported the Tulsa Agile Practitioners group by having them join our meetups virtually for a period. This year we’ve added Pradeepa Narayanaswamy and Steve Fraser as group organizers, and we’ll be experimenting with a lean coffee format and a night of lightning talks to engage our members in new ways. Recently we’ve seen more of our members speak at conferences. It’s gratifying to see our own people pollinating the country with their wisdom.

Everywhere I look, I see how communities have transformed the groups I coach and me. Communities have incredible potential to guide, inspire, and enhance people by enabling learning. As Peter M. Senge wrote, “Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we were never able to do.” Transformation powered by communities.


Allison Pollard

Allison has presented at many conferences, including Keep Austin Agile, Scrum Gathering, Dallas and Houston TechFests, UTDallas Project Management Symposium, and PMI Professional Development conferences on a variety of topics, including Scrum Master as team coach, creating communities of practice, and eliminating barriers between teams and customers. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, she is one of the organizers of the Dallas-Fort Worth Scrum user group and serve on the Dallas Agile Leadership Network board.