Communities of practice need to be in the repertoire of team coaches

Communities of practice need to be in the repertoire of team coaches

photo of shop with customers

By David Kesby of AoEC

Team coaching is developing. More and more coaches are expanding their repertoire to include the ability to coach teams. Together team coaches constitute a community of practice where individuals are bound together through the similarity of the work they do. Simply by reading this article, you are engaging in the practice of team coaching; you are seeking to learn from another team coach in order to improve your own team coaching practice.

At its fullest, this collaborative learning process will encourage you to experiment with your work, deepening your team coaching experience, and improving the impact you have for your clients. As you repeat the learning process, building your practice each time, you will increasingly identify as a team coach. This is what we are doing as a practice community of team coaches, whether we realise it or not.

The essence of a community of practice is a group of people who learn together through their similarity to improve their respective individual performance. But communities of practice aren’t teams.

In teams, people work together. They are inter-dependent. Their combined performance is affected by everyone on the team. Teams need to hold each other mutually accountable if they are to achieve their common goal together.

There is no common goal in a community of practice; there are individual goals. Your goal in reading this article (if you have one), will be different from my goal in writing it. If you use this learning in a mistaken way, I have no way of holding you accountable. Yet we have a dynamic. As I share my experience I am learning; as you read you are learning. We are a learning community of team coaches. We are a community of practice.

So what’s going on? And why does it matter?

Learning is a participatory, social activity involving experience, development and a change in our self-view. It involves experience, doing, belonging and becoming. Learning from each other, with each other and for each other allows us to share experiences with fellow coaches, experiment new methods with our client teams, and return to reflect with each other and recognise the gradual change taking place. The best learning groups will leave you with a life-long connection with your colleagues. You may eventually even call yourself a team coach. Communities of practice have powerful bonds of belonging and identity.

For me, this learning community is not a team that works together to achieve a common goal; it is a team that learns together to develop a common practice. The two are very different and in my opinion should not be forced to fit into a single definition of what we coach. Yet I witness team coaches considering any group of people a team; where ‘team’ is the solution to that ‘group’.

I believe the one approach weakens our practice. We are limited in our scope, blinkered in our perspective and blunted in our methods. Teams and communities of practice have different dynamics, different purposes, and offer different values. Yet when they perform, communities of practice can become greater than the sum of their parts. And therein lies the irony. While team coaches learn about the nature of teams, how many learn about the nature of communities of practice? In my experience, hardly any.

This matters to me for two reasons:

Firstly, it appears that we benefit from learning together as a community of practice, yet we don’t appreciate the process of that approach in our work – this incongruence is inauthentic.

Secondly, many intact teams in organisations might better be thought of as a community of practice rather than as a conventional team.

This latter notion has fascinated me since 2006, when I started to consider the team I was in as a community of practice rather than a team. The more I thought about it, the more I experimented, and the more I experimented, the more it provided answers that conventional teams didn’t offer.

Including communities of practice in our shared repertoire

For the last 13 years, I have coached many intact teams. Sometimes I coach them as a conventional team, and sometimes as a community of practice. In the latter case, I have coached many teams including regional risk managers, matrons, project managers and vicars. They may appear diverse, but all these teams have similar characteristics that differ from conventional teams – their members all do similar things, and they do them with people outside the team. Such teams are no different to team coaches who benefit from learning together so that they can improve their impact with their clients.

When coaching communities of practice, what distinguishes my approach is that I focus on strengthening team similarities rather than differentiating team strengths; I pursue the development of their common practice rather than the achievement of their common goal; and I promote ‘out-teaming’ more than working together, because outside the team is where performance value is felt.

Through this experience, I have learned that communities of practice are functional, predictable and hugely valuable within organisational systems. So, it surprises me that communities of practice are not part of the shared repertoire of team coaches. If they were, perhaps we might add greater value to our client teams?

As you reflect on this article and consider what you might experiment with, appreciate that we are not working together, that as team coaches we are more similar than different, and that we are not pursuing the same common goal. Instead we are learning together, benefiting from each other’s experiences, and slowly developing our shared repertoire. As such, we are developing a common practice and sense of identity as team coaches together.

We are unlikely to ever work together or perform together, yet through our collaborative learning we might improve our individual performances. We might feel like we’ve teamed conventionally, but we have not. Until the practice of team coaching more readily adopts the power involved in communities of practice, we will be serving our clients with only half the tools at our disposal.

David Kesby is the author of Extra-Dependent Teams: Realising the Power of Similarity, published by Routledge in 2018. He uses his practice of extra-dependent teams in his role as chief consultant coach with the Academy of Executive Coaching (AoEC) and coaches inter-dependent and extra-dependent teams as a partner of Woodeson Kesby Organisational Coaching.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash