Increasingly in networks and communities I’m part of, the activity participants see the most value and impact in — and engage with regularity and enthusiasm — is peer learning circles.
I have found that peer learning circles are fantastic at:
- Helping people get direct answers to challenges they face and reducing repeated mistakes across projects and organizations
- Introducing people to new and diverse perspectives that can foster creative ideas and spark mindset shifts
- Providing a safe space to raise important but tough issues people might not otherwise share
- Fostering new and deep relationships, which can (and usually do) form the basis for longer-term collaboration
- Creating a sense of support, solidarity and collective power, like “we’re not in this alone” (this is not to be undermined!)
They also, when done well, can expose participants to new leadership skills and mindsets, help a community realize it only need look inward for answers, and sustain connection and engagement over the long-term.
And they function beautifully in organizations, communities, schools, movements, networks, etc.
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A quick clarification: I’m not talking about working groups, workshops, webinars, or meet-ups. These are, I think, great for building awareness, connecting to the bigger picture, and communicating to a group.
But what they don’t facilitate is deep, meaningful changes in the way we think or work over the long-term.
When I say peer learning circles, I mean small groups of people who regularly and consistently meet to connect and exchange. Sometimes these are also called “clusters” or “communities of practice”.
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So many times though, I’ve seen learning circles fall short of achieving what they set out to achieve…
Often, we set them up and then let them “go free” — expecting them to continue on their own.
But what happens instead is, after an initial spike of energy and interest, things start to fall through. Some people don’t show up. Meetings get cancelled last minute. Energy dwindles. Then, silence.
And once that happens, they are very hard to re-create and re-invigorate.
Over the past year I’ve been trying to determine the right “formula” to help such groups thrive. So that groups meet regularly, and participants feel high value in them and a desire to engage. While at the same time, the burden of coordination and facilitation is light enough that they can scale with ease.
There’s a lot of tiny pieces that, when they all come together, allow for many learning circles to thrive. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:
- Outline a clear and simple purpose. Make sure participants know exactly what the circles are trying to achieve. As an example, I often say: to get advice from peers for questions you face, while building deep relationships.
- Establish — and repeatedly emphasize — shared principles. Create a brief list of “community guidelines” that foster safe and trusting spaces, like everyone has a voice / we valorize diversity / what’s said here is confidential. Make sure they are written in calendar invites, and repeatedly shared at the beginning of meetings.
- Introduce a straightforward process. Make it super easy to self-facilitate, with only a few steps that are achievable in a short time frame. My go-to processes: peer assist, troika consulting, case clinic (I’ve also been recommended, but haven’t yet used, Working Out Loud). Leave only some room for flexibility — I usually recommend adding a) personal updates, b) round-robin sharing of exciting news, and c) a closing question like “how will you take what you’ve learned today to your work / life?”
- Clarify commitment. This makes all the difference. Draw out time requirements for meetings (e.g. 60 minutes monthly) and if anything’s expected beyond (e.g. one group I know agreed to “never leave with a to-do list”). And facilitate it so participants confirm their commitment to each other (not just to you as the coordinator) in a meeting or group message/email— this fosters peer accountability, which is a powerful force.
- Agree on an end date. Like, 6 months. This clarifies that the circles won’t last indefinitely, and helps people decide if they want to engage now, or later. After the end date, switch people around. Form new clusters and relationships. Let knew people join, and give current participants the option to opt-out.
- Matchmake groups. Sometimes letting people self-select is useful, but often the back-end work of weaving — finding synergies and fostering new connections — is more powerful. Create groups of people that don’t know each other but can complement each other in some way, e.g. location, area of interest, common needs, position in the organization. There is no perfect formula; sometimes “I just think these people would really hit it off” is enough!
- An optimal size is 6–8 people per group. Smaller groups risks that if 1 or 2 can’t show up, meetings get cancelled. Larger groups reduces participants’ time to speak as well as the sense of cohesion and relationships.
- Appoint, and consistently support, a group “lead”. Ask people to self-nominate, or select someone who is motivated and willing to input the extra time. Clarify their role: to make sure the purpose, process, commitments, and principles are adhered to — and those joining get value from participating. And regularly connect with these leaders, in 1:1’s and in small groups, so they can also learn and troubleshoot together.
- Do the scheduling yourself. I’ve seen this too often: groups fall through for one simple reason, the scheduling gets too complicated. So take that off their hands! That way, they can focus on what matters: the dialogue and the relationships. Practically this means helping each group find a recurring time (use Doodle), then set up a recurring invite on a common community calendar. If it’s online, see if they need a video conferencing tool.
- Give nudges to help build habits. Sometimes, people just need a small nudge or reminder to show up (especially if they are not strict calendar users). One trick I’ve used: I set an auto-reminder on the common calendar to send a template message a few days before each cluster meeting saying essentially: “please remember to RSVP — it’s of respect to your group lead who is volunteering their time.” Another trick: inside the calendar invite, I put the purpose, principles, commitment, and link to the structure — so it is ever-present. Remember these groups are usually “external” to participants’ everyday lives, and they will usually appreciate it if you help them internalize it.
- Finally, connect to a larger purpose. Small groups are lovely, but sometimes participants can say “we don’t see how we’re part of the bigger picture.” Find ways to integrate what they’re learning with the larger network’s activities, like inviting groups 1-by-1 to share-out what they’re learning in open events.
Two other things I’ve learned the hard way: don’t over-expect, and don’t rush it. Relationship and trust-building takes time, and people also need to understand what others can offer. Asking a group to do too much (e.g. co-create an “outcome”) too early can quickly lead to drop-off.
Anything else you’ve found helpful?
Brendon Johnson is a seasoned changemaker with a passion for strategies and models around networks, communities, participatory organizing, and collaborative action
Originally published at Medium
Photo by Jose Aljovin
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