The workforce has changed — probably for good. In many cases, traditional management tools built in the time when we saw each other in person every day are no longer effective. In a recent McKinsey & Company study on the Great Resignation, workers cited feeling undervalued and a lack of belonging as reasons for leaving their organizations. As hybrid work options continue to grow even after the pandemic, I think leaders need a new set of tools to engage and develop high performers. Creating cross-organizational challenge circles of employees allows you to leverage existing assets to help foster learning, growth, engagement and belonging.
What Are Challenge Circles?
Challenge circles are what I call small groups of employees from across an organization that meet regularly to seek advice, share knowledge, practice skills and connect with each other. In leadership development programs I’ve created for clients, incorporating challenge circles has significantly increased participant engagement and learning. Those relationships often thrive far past the end of the training, as the participants continue to support each other’s development.
The idea of informal “communities of practice” has existed throughout history as a way for peer groups to learn from each other. More recently peer coaching has emerged as a powerful tool for learning and engagement. Challenge circles integrate elements of both into a structured peer group with individual and organizational benefits.
A Low-Cost Initiative With Huge Potential
Challenge circles enable you to leverage existing assets — employee knowledge, time and energy — to create added value for the individual participants and the company. Participants connect with peers to grow skills and advance their own development. Research on adult education from Vanderbilt University shows that cooperative learning, where education happens in small groups, significantly outperforms individual learning. In addition to sharing best practices and fostering innovation, challenge circle participants also develop social bonds, creating a network of support and connection. I’ve found that this increases a sense of belonging in the organization, something that research shows can reduce burnout and decrease turnover.
Many companies are already seeing the benefits of creating peer communities of practice in their organizations. According to Imperative, a peer coaching platform, 97% of participants at Zillow reported that their conversations were “helpful,” “very helpful” or even “breakthrough.” At Boston Scientific, employees increased the positivity of their emotions by an astounding 2.4 times through peer coaching.
How Can You Create Challenge Circles In Your Own Organization?
Below are five practices for creating successful challenge circles.
1. Have a clear purpose. While regular, informal chats can be great, a challenge circle will benefit from a clearly defined reason for getting together. That might be to share challenges and learnings from implementing client projects, or it could be having a place to rehearse difficult conversations participants need to have with a team member. A clear purpose will help ground the group and increase the value of your time together.
2. Keep it small. I’ve found that around five people is ideal. This is large enough to include diverse perspectives and small enough so that everyone can participate. In Okinawa, Japan — a “blue zone,” where people tend to live longer — people were traditionally paired together as children in five-person social groups called moai, and they’ve continued to meet throughout their lives. It’s been suggested that these groups contribute to the longevity of the people there.
3. Focus on real-world, real-time challenges. Challenge circles work best when they focus on what matters most at the moment. Rather than sharing ideas about how to improve client service in the future, the group will benefit far more from workshopping the next steps for a participant who is in a messy situation with a client right now.
4. Look for additional wins. If your organization is struggling with collaboration across departments, strategically bringing together individuals from across the organization could add even more value. While you can’t arbitrarily put someone from the technology, marketing, human resources and product teams in a group and force them to learn from each other, you can identify employees from those groups that share a common interest or development goal. Creating cross-departmental challenge circles of first-time managers, for example, can help each of them succeed individually and foster better collaboration across the company.
5. Keep evolving. Every six or 12 months, take a step back as a group and evaluate how it’s going. What has worked well that you want to continue doing? What might need to change?
In a hybrid work environment, employees can easily become disconnected and lose sight of how their work makes a difference. Challenge circles can be a cost-effective way to foster employee development and create networks of support that reduce burnout and turnover.