By now, you may have seen some bit of drama in the VMUG community around the apparent policy change that disqualified some VMUG leaders based on their employer. Eric Shanks (@Eric_Shanks) did a great job of covering it on his blog as did Matt Crape (@MattThatITGuy)with his post. While the VMUG situation has its own unique aspects, the question for me boils down to something simple: How do you remove people from an external community?
Babies And Bathwater
Removing unauthorized people from a community is nothing new under the sun. I was a Cisco Champion once upon a time. During the program’s second year I participated in briefings and events with the rest of the group, including my good friend Amy Arnold (@AmyEngineer). When the time came to reapply to the program for Year 3, I declined to apply again for my own reasons. Amy, however, was told that she couldn’t reapply. She and several other folks in the program were being disqualified for “reasons”. It actually took us a while to figure out why, and the answer still wasn’t 100% clear. To this day the best we can figure out is that there is some kind of conflict between anyone working with the public sector or government and the terms and conditions of the Champions program.
The lack of communication about the rules was the biggest issue by far with the whole transition. People don’t like being excluded. They especially don’t like being excluded from a group they were previously a member of. It takes time and careful explanation to help them understand why they are no longer able to be a part of a community. Hiding behind vague statements and pointing to rule sections doesn’t really help.
In the case of the VMUG issue above, the answer as to why the dismissed leaders were disqualified still isn’t clear. At least, it isn’t clear according to the official rules. There is still some debate as to the real reasoning behind everything, as the comments on Matt’s blog indicate. However, the community has unofficially settled on the reasoning being that those leaders were employed by someone that VMware, who is more-than-loosely affiliated with VMUG, has deemed a direct competitor.
I’m no stranger to watching companies go from friends to frenemies to competitors in the blink of an eye. VMware and Cisco. VMware and Scale Computing. Cisco and HP. All of these transitions took two aligned companies and put them on opposite sides of the firing line. And in a lot of cases, the shift in messaging was swift. Last week they were both great partners. The next week shifted to “We have always been at war with Eurasia.” Which didn’t bode well for people that were caught in the middle.
Correcting The Position
How do you correctly go about affecting changes in membership? How can you realistically make things work when a rule change suddenly excludes people? It’s not an easy path, but here are some helpful hints:
- COMMUNICATION! – Above all else, it is absolutely critical to communicate at every step of the process. Don’t leave people guessing as to your reasoning. If you are contemplating a rule change, let everyone know. If you are looking to enforce a rule that was previously not enforced, warn everyone well in advance. Don’t let people come up with their own theories. Don’t make people write blogs asking for clarification on a situation.
- If a person is being excluded because of a rule change, give the a bit of grace period to exit on their own terms. If that person is a community leader, they will need time to transition a new person into their role. If that person is a well-liked member of the community, give them a chance to say goodbye instead of being forced out. That grace period doesn’t need to be months long. Usually by the next official meeting or briefing time is enough. Giving someone the chance to say goodbye is much better than telling everyone they left. It provides closure and gives everyone a chance to discuss what the next steps will be.
- If a rule change is in order that excludes members of the community, weigh it carefully. Ask yourself what you are gaining from it. Is it a legal reason? Does it need to be made to comply with some kind of regulation? Those are valid reasons and should be communicated with enough warning. People will understand. But if the reasoning behind your rule change is spite or retaliation for something, carefully consider your next steps. Realize that every rank-and-file member of the community has their own opinions and vision. Just because Evil CEO made your CEO mad doesn’t mean that his Local SE has the same feelings. And it absolutely doesn’t mean that Local SE is going to subvert your community for their own ends. These are the kinds of decisions that divide people at the expense of keeping your community free of “influences”.
It can’t be said enough that you need to talk to the community before you even begin debating action. There are no community organizations that blindly follow orders from on high. These are places where thinking people interact and share. And if they are suddenly told how things are going to be without any discussion or debate, you can better believe they are going to try and get to the bottom of it. Whether you want them to or not.
Kicking people out of something is never easy. Tech Field Day has rules about delegates being employed by presenting vendors. More than once I’ve had conversations with people about being disqualified from being a delegate. Most of them understand why that’s the case beforehand because our policy is straightforward. But if it’s ever changed, you can better believe that we’re going to let everyone know well in advance.
Communities run on communication. Discussion, debate, and ultimately acceptance are all driven by knowing what’s happening at all times. If you make rules under the cloak of secrecy for reasons which aren’t readily apparent, you risk alienating more than just the people you’re looking to exclude.