Community Pairing as a Strategy

Published 2023-01-25
Building a portfolio of communities - Rosieland, The Indiependent, Ministry of Testing

I identify with the idea of community pairing so much as I love 1:1 conversations and often struggle in group conversations. I feel like it is an untapped area in community organizing.

Pairing as a concept is not a new one. For example, pair programming, a technique in which two programmers work together at one workstation, has been a common practice for many years.

When our output is creative work with the potential of never-ending solutions, it helps to work alongside others to explore different ideas and perspectives of what can be achieved.

In fact, I could happily say that many of my ideas and things that I end up working on have emerged from conversations, explorations and collaborations with one other person.

Community pairing, for me, is coming together to do things as a pair. However, when we build community we can expand this concept to have a wider reach too.

Community pairing simplifies taking action

Often in community, we get overwhelmed with how to take action. We think that we have to do things in (big) groups. Or we have to put on some kind of event to make it seem 'effective' and justify its existence.

Sometimes we need more bite-size actions to help get the community flywheels going. And the reality is that we can make better and often quicker progress by exploring ideas with just one other person.

Community pairing simplifies the community building process by the simple fact that you only need two people to show up to make it a success!

Let me repeat that, we just need one other person to make it work.

Finding one other person to do something with feels like a much easier prospect. The overwhelm goes. We can relax. We can focus on connecting, exploring and being ourselves. And quite frankly, the idea of just being our authentic selves can be magical.

Community pairing caters to diverse preferences

Often we think that people just don't want to come forward, collaborate or participate in the community. I'd like to argue that many people will come forward if they are given opportunities that they feel comfortable with and that align with their goals.

It is therefore up to community builders, to put ourselves in the shoes of others and create experiences that align with what they are seeking. The more we try to pair, the more we will naturally see what the community prefers.

We could consider pairing based on based on a variety of factors, such as:

  • experience
  • age
  • interests
  • goals
  • location
  • current challenges
  • the format, or the 'how' of pairing

Community pairing is about the how too

Pairing is not only about doing things in twos, it's also about experimenting with how we should pair.

To get to the point of understanding people's preferences we need to offer them varying options, such as:

  • video calls
  • audio calls
  • in real life
  • google docs
  • visual collaboration (Miro / Mural)
  • sync and async
  • appropriate times (time limitations, consider life situations or timezones)
  • choosing themes, goals or agenda
  • knowing who they will be pairing with
  • an outline / agenda / rules
  • instructions and expectations

It makes sense to research and survey your community about their preferences first, but ultimately people show their true intention and ability to show up with their two feet. You'll never really know if people will show up until you start actioning your plans.

Community pairing could take many forms

Typically if you are pair programming you are limited to the devs who you work with. With community, we have the advantage of pairing with people directly in your community team or reaching out to people in our community-sphere.

Of course, context will always matter, but here are some ideas of who you could reach out to:

  • your boss
  • your teammate(s)
  • different departments in your company — sales, success, product
  • industry experts
  • new people in your community
  • long-timers from within your community
  • your community champions
  • the lurkers
  • people interested in a specific theme
  • people who have shared interesting ideas or work

Sometimes you may not know who would be interested and it may be easier to just put something out there to see who responds. You could post an invite in your chat, forum, blog, social, newsletter...or whatever way you communicate with your people. And wait to see who comes forward!

Other times, especially in your own company, you may need to be more proactive. People are always busy and will naturally not participate in something unless it is seen as a priority. Put yourself in their shoes and see how you can bring value to them too.

The magic of community pairing is that it's not a big deal if, for whatever reason, the session doesn't happen then it doesn't really directly impact the community. You can reschedule or just move on.

Community pairing should be easy

In community pairing, we should practice simplifying everything — how can we make it as easy as possible for people to participate?

Can you avoid wasting people's time?

  • Is the wording of the purpose clear?
  • Is it easy to sign up?
  • Are you prepared when the time comes?

Can you take the decision making away from people?

  • Have clear instructions and goals.
  • Have a time and a place.
  • Have a form or a 'Calendly' set up for people to book time in.

Is there clarity on what the outcome and benefits are for people?

  • Why would people want to show up?
  • What will you explore?
  • How will it help them?
  • How will it help you and your community?
  • What happens next?

Of course, there is also what I believe can be the best kind of community pairing — spur of the moment opportunities. We don't have to overthink these things. We can take opportunities as they arise and see where they take us.

Community pairing is more about learning and connecting, rather than scaling

In theory, pairing could scale within your community. Tools like Meetsy, Orbiit, Donut and Intros can support and automate some of the growth of community pairing.

However, with all things automation and community, I'd treat it with care. As the world has rushed to automate connections, more and more people are generally switching off from it. We all know a bot when we see one and as time has passed we ignore them much like we ignore notifications or ads.

It also only takes one sour experience of connecting via bots for people not to want to come back and try it again — often without even giving feedback as to why.

A personal rosie preference is that community pairing should be about developing a community culture of caring, connecting and learning. You don't do it to scale it. You do it to explore and learn. You then pay attention to what emerges — it could be scaling community pairing, but chances are that instead, other positive things will emerge.

Examples of community pairing

I think most community pairings won't be called it by name. However, the more we recognise it as such, the more we can start valuing it as a community activity.

I also love the idea of community pairing to actually produce or co-create something. This stuff gets me geekily excited!

This is not comprehensive. Consider this list more as a way to get your creative juices going.

Mentoring or coaching session

  • Solving a problem
  • Crying on a shoulder, or celebrating success
  • An open discussion on any related topic
  • Audio spaces, casual podcasts or streaming
  • Take notes together
  • Requesting product feedback
  • Meet for coffee / walk / [insert a community activity here]

Get creative with community pairing

We could define a boundary around community pairing, or we could choose to expand our thinking of what it could include. We can choose to pair and do something together whilst also adding other people into the mix.

In the world of tech today we can choose to invite people in, to watch, to pitch in, to add notes or feedback. The great part is that if we organise and communicate it as a 'pairing' then as long as just the pair show up then it is a success.

Everything else is an added bonus.

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