A Dysfunctional Community of Practice

One day in the fall I happened to be walking past our community recreation centre, which is adjacent to the old and unused tennis courts. I noticed that my good friend Ian was out there lashing a large pile of 2 x 4s together. Ian, being about 70 years old with knees as solid as chocolate mouse, appeared to be somewhat distressed.  Concerned, I went over to give him a hand. It turned out that he was just in the throes of beginning the preliminary work of constructing an outside ice-hickey rink for the youth of our village.


“Need a hand Ian.” I asked rather sheepishly.


“Yup.” Ian didn’t mince his words.


For the next day and a half I helped Ian construct the various frames required for the integrity of the side and end boards necessary for an outdoor hockey rink.


“That felt pretty good” I thought.  I was somewhat energized.


The following weekend a slew of men and women came together to actually put up the boards themselves. Before long our hockey rink took shape.


“Who are these guys and gals?” I wondered, aloud.


“That’s the Manotick Community Association” Ian volunteered.


Later that winter our village put on a Winter Carnival – “Shiver Fest” as it was called. It was great fun – outdoor and indoor activities where the whole community came out to put aside the February blahs and party, skate, gossip and play a little chin music.  A few days later I received a newsletter from the Manotick Community Association highlighting the success of the winter festival’s activities and thanking everyone involved who had volunteered their time.  Hey, I even received a honourable mention for my work on the hockey rink. I felt pretty good about that. Great stuff!


Now, being 52 years old one would think that I would know better.  But oh noooo, I was still as naïve as a self-assured, cocky, but unconscious teenaged dude. You see, I sent the association an e-mail thanking them for their efforts and offering my limited carpentry or grunt work services if the need should ever arrive. Well, before I could say “Community of Practice,” I found myself as a member of one of the association’s committees – the Hazardous Waste Committee to boot.  Crap, did they know something about my lifestyle that I didn’t? I must admit I did work for Imperial Tobacco a long, long time ago… I was their chain smoker!!


What to do? How can I get myself out of this?


“Look John” I said to myself. “You have always felt the need to belong to something – right?  Becoming involved with this community association may just be the ticket to your sense of well-being.A real feeling of belonging to a real Community of Practice, of purpose.”


“Yes, perhaps Johnny,” my evil twin added. “But the time, the time. You’ve been on these tribal councils before with Little League Baseball and Minor Hockey. The horror…the horror… You know the frustrations and dynamics of human nature. The process-ers, the naysay-ers, the chicken little-ers, the handwringers, the movers and shakers, the goody two shoe-ers, the workers, the – “I must be in charge at all cost-ers.”  “Yeah John, I know all that, but maybe this will be different”


“With whom on God’s green earth are you talking to??” my wife yelled.


I became engaged, a full participant. I was now a bona fide member of the Manotick Community Association – Hazardous Waste Committee dude. Hey, besides having a very, very warm and fuzzy feeling of belonging and community pride maybe I’ll learn something here and make some new friends.


About a month later I went to my first Association meeting. Ever so shyly, I climbed the stairs and entered the community hall. About 50 people had already gathered – talking, chattering, laughing, and making a whole lot of racket such that the noise level set off my tinnitus. Eying the forum for a familiar face, I noticed one of my old-timer ice-hockey colleagues, sitting by himself. I sauntered over and sat down beside him.


“Hey Vic, great season eh?” “No broken bones.”  For guys like us that’s a great season.


He laughed. Apparently Vic was a lurker, a regular here. He knew everyone:  their strengths and foibles, weaknesses and interests, everything.  He was a long time resident of Manotick so I figured he more than anyone else here could mentor me with the proceedings and nuances of the group.


Call to order. The Executive was up front facing us.  Manotick Mike, the president of the Manotick Community Association, took up the mic to call the meeting to order.


…Pause to note: There are two Mike Smiths in our village. One lives in the village itself and is the President of the Community Association. Hence “Manotick Mike”. The other Mike Smith lives just outside the village and runs his own business.  He is known as “Concrete Mike.” He is in the reification business…


Squeeeeeeeeeeeeeeelch. Yikes, my tinnitus. I cried and cringed. Those squealing sound waves bouncing and ricocheting across that cavernous hall like those fingers scratching up the old school blackboard. Good gawd man. Small town or what?


Like Vic I decided to just sit back and lurk. I felt that it was safer that way as I did not want to embarrass myself with my procedural ineptness. Or perhaps I was just a little shy and self-conscious.


“They have an agenda” Vic told me. “First they’ll introduce themselves, welcome new members, blah, blah, blah.  You know, that introductory, nauseating stuff. – a real crock man”


Sure enough, I was welcomed as the Hazardous Waste Committee’s newbee (sic-k) volunteer. A round of applause.


“That always happens” Vic said. “Let’s make the sucker…. Oh I’m sorry John, volunteer, feel welcome – a real crock man!”


“Okay folks, on with our first agenda item – changes and amendments to our constitution” Manotick Mike announced. “Amendments to our charter.”


Vic leaned over: “Okay John, here come the process-ers.”


Vic was right as about three or four people tabled about 50 gazillion amendments. The process-ers and wordsmith-ers bogged us down.


“But we think ‘the’ should be changed to ‘those’. And delete ‘it’ on page 3, para 2 subsection 1, sub para (a) and add ‘these.’  It makes no sense in the context of this constitution, blah, blah, blah.”


Votes: Yay…. Nay….the nays have it, and on and on it went for about 1 ½ hours. Jeez, and only the first item of the agenda too.


“What on earth is happening?” I asked Vic.


“It happens all the time he said. A real crock.  We come up with a really great idea and concept – in this case Manotick community involvement – but the process-ers end up reifying the structural process of the group to such a degree and extent that it becomes abstract – no one can really understand what we’re talking about or doing anymore.”


“Hmmm, profound thought,” I thought.


“But here is where it gets interesting” Vic pointed out.


One of the process-ers put forth an amendment that stated that only those members who live within the 555 telephone exchange could be eligible to be president of the association.


“What is this?” I asked Vic.


“It’s a real crock man. That process guy is also one of those – I gotta be in charge at all cost-ers – type.  Manotick Mike now lives just outside the village. This guy wants him out so he can run for President.  A real crock” he added.


“Wow!” I thought. Brutal! And I thought this was going to be a friendly group!


The meeting went on for about 3 hours. I sat and listened and learned a great deal about what to expect from this group.  Sure enough, lots of discussion and heated debate from a few, but no action forthcoming – the naysay-ers and hand wringers.  Manotick Mike pleaded at times for volunteers.  What was interesting to me was that many of the volunteers who did come forward were individuals who had no apparent reason to volunteer in the first place.  It was a negotiated settlement on their part I would think. Ah, yes, the work-ers.


One lady got up and told us she was a member of the village’s Horticultural Society. She planted here, she planted there, she planted everywhere.


“I horticultured this, I horticultured that. I can horticulture up a storm.” She squawked


“You need flowers – I’ll horticulture them for you.”


“Must be the horticultural village idiot” I mused.


“No” Vic laughed, “She owns the village florist shop. What a crock of horticultural doo-doo.”


“Yeah” I added. “She should be planted – 6 ft under”


“Okay, so who wants to take the lead on our village’s main street beautification project?” Manotick Mike asked. No response.


Wow. What dynamics. It turned out that some lady who worked at the local senior citizens agency finally agreed to take on this initiative and accepted the role. I wonder who’s going to be breathing down her back?
“What a crock” Vic whispered.  “A hand-wringer for sure that horticulturalist.”


And on and on it went.  Yes, as a group we are just a little eccentric, a bit dysfunctional perhaps.  But you know what? We are a community of like-minded individuals who collectively want to make a difference in our town and in our lives.  We do practice what we preach and act on what we believe in.  Each and every one of us has the best interests of our community at heart – even if the process is torturous at times.


Teething problems? You bet. And while the group reflects the whole realm of human nature: emotions, foibles, strengths and weaknesses, we are all committed to a common goal of making Manotick the very best place to live in the Ottawa Valley. We’ll either have one heck of a time doing this as a Community of Practice, of Purpose or Resolve, or we’ll all slit our wrists in the process.  Nevertheless, when our collective knowledge begins to gel, watch out. There’ll be no stopping us.


“By the way Vic, what are you doing now that you’re retired?” I queried


“My wife and I have opened a pottery shop in the village”


“Oh yeah” I continued somewhat surprised. “Doing what? Making vases, bowls, jars?”


“No, crock pots. We make crock pots!!!”


I should have guessed.


Oh, and I forgot one other type of member. Those Betty Crock-ers!!


Me?  As a member of Manotick’s Hazardous Waste Committee, I’m currently up to my armpits in you know what.  It ain’t pretty but it is for the collective goo goo this doo doo