Guilds v2

Everything changes and nothing stands still – Heraclitus

Someone emailed me recently to ask about “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of Guilds, because almost a year has passed since I first wrote about them. We set up Guilds to tap into our desire to learn and improve how we do things, as well as facilitate horizontal communication and collective action across our stable teams. Most times our Guilds aim affect change on something external, but this post focuses on changes within the Guilds themselves. Here are some insights from a recent retrospective on Guilds that we held in July. Guilds session at July Unconference

1. Do > Talk

Hands-on sessions have higher engagement and a high participant return-on-time-invested. Some examples from our technical Guilds include coding workshops, group code-reviews, and mini-hackathons.

2. Why Did People Show Up?

Are members looking for a support network? Do they want a place to learn? Why did you start it? What do people want to get out of this Guild? Kick off your first session with your perception of problem, and a vision how the guild will help address it.

3. Always be Iterating and Experimenting

At the end of each Guild session, run a retrospective to iterate on it and/or a survey to gauge participants’ return on the time they just invested in the session. There’s no one perfect formula for running a Guild, so experimenting with different methods allows you to try new ideas or tweak existing ones until it works for everyone. As an example, our new Agile Guild adopted LeanCoffee as an better way to facilitate their discussions.

4. Why Should I Show Up?

Got an agenda? Have you followed up on commitments from the last session? When someone is weighing work commitments against attending a Guild, give them a reason to choose the Guild.

5. Geography Has an Impact

Hootsuite has main offices in Bucharest (10 hours ahead) and London (8 hours ahead), and Singapore (16 hours ahead). Those time zone differences often means it’s inconvenient to just dial someone into a meeting so we’ve found that asynchronous communication works best.

Not many of our Guilds have participants who are geographically distributed, for those that do, we use four tools to help us:

  • Facebook@Work for ‘working out loud’ as much as possible so discussions, follow-up items, and questions exist in a publicly accessible place, not in email.
  • Hipchat for short, immediate communication
  • Google Docs to collaborate on, and then share meeting minutes.
  • Google Hangouts to bring remote participants ‘face-to-face.’  If your team members are in a similar time-zone then you could simply dial them into the Guild meeting.
6. Quality > Quantity

Leading the Guild session? Prepare. Would you rather attend one kick-ass session, or a handful of mediocre ones? Choose a cadence that works for both the facilitator and the participants. Guilds that started out meeting bi-weekly ended up shifting to monthly or bi-monthly.

Photo by Aaron Burden via Unsplash.
Photo by Aaron Burden via Unsplash.

7. Get Endorsement. Get Alignment.

Guilds help create relationships and promote cross-team collaboration, which lets us develop better products, faster. Share the value your Guild bring to the organization: get buy-in from your manager; and make sure your goals and schedule reflect the work you put into the Guild.

8. Share the Load

As a Guild leader, involve others in choosing topics, presenting, facilitating, or running a workshop.

9. Change is good. Not Working for You? Bite the Bullet and Iterate.

While we’ve seen some great benefits from a range of active Guilds, we’ve learned that they won’t always last, and this is a positive thing. Each one has to provide enough value to its organizer and participants to keep it going.

For example, last month I dissolved our Onboarding Guild and sometime soon our Javascript Guild will morph into something similar, but different. That’s OK. It was time for them to iterate.

For the Javascript Guild, attendance is down, the volunteer leading it is frustrated, and sessions had seemingly lost their usefulness for a good reason: our traditional javascript framework Backbone.js is being quickly supplanted by React. So, a new Guild will emerge renewed, to focus on hands-on practice of React, to define our standards, and to build tools that will help our shift to React.

For the Onboarding Guild, attendance at these sessions had declined. I’m unsure of the reasons: possibly too frequent, possibly I need to work on my facilitation skills, most likely that our onboarding practice is ‘reasonably good’ so the initial problems we set out to solve are satisfied. Honestly the feeling of ‘stasis’ and ‘reasonably good’ make my spider-sense tingle – but I feel that this is the right thing to do at this time.

Our other Guilds, like Scala and PHP persist. New Guilds have sprung up too: Product Owners, Databases, Mentorship, and Agile.

10. Collect Data

This is a big area for improvement for us. I can tell you how many Guilds are up and running but I’d need to do some research to tell you their outcomes, the actions they’ve undertaken, and the impact of those actions.

What’s Next for Us?

By keeping these suggestions in mind, and continuing to experiment, I’m positive that we will iterate our way to a better Guild model or even to a variation on that theme. This is a good thing.


To Alister, Luke, Ken, Brandon, Mackenzie, Adam, Josh, and the rest of the folks who provided their input. To Lindsay, Kimli, Alister and Ric for their editing.

About the AuthorNoel Pullen 200x200

Noel focuses on culture, employee engagement, technical community involvement, and training for Hootsuite’s technical groups. He loves to exchange ideas and would like to hear how you do these things at your organization. Get in touch via LinkedIn.