Starting a voluntary discussion group

I co-founded a lunchtime discussion group at work five years ago.  As we approach the fifth anniversary, I was reflecting on what went into it.  What worked; what didn’t; what would I do differently.  Our purpose was to have a place to discuss technology that we weren’t necessarily working on and to share knowledge/ideas across teams/departments.


Technically the group started more than five years ago as a technical book club.  That didn’t work because everyone had to read from the same book.  Which requires preparation each meeting.  It also makes it hard to come back after you’ve missed a meeting.  The organizer of that group and I had an informal conversation near the cafeteria hallway about how to improve things and the new group was born!

The new group

We started meeting twice a month and switched to once a month over time.  We have a mix of moderated discussion topics and presentations with heavy Q & A.  At the beginning, we said we would cancel the meeting if there weren’t 4 people in the room.  This hasn’t been a problem in years.

What I consider key to the group’s success

  • We always meet the same day and time – this makes it easy for people to remember when the group meets.  For example, the first Tuesday of the month; the first and third Thursday of the month, etc.
  • Advertising – We advertise through an opt-in mailing list (don’t spam people), telling people who might be interested and putting up physical signs the day of the meeting.  Speaking of which these signs are always the same color/font/logo to encourage branding/memory.  People have even said “you are the blue sign people”.
  • Voluntary – This one is important to me.  Attending the group is voluntary.  Running the group is voluntary.  This means it is not a work thing and does not get billed to work projects.  It also allows the group to remain independent topic wise and FUN.
  • Informal – While we do have presentations, they are usually of an informal type. (Sometimes someone is previewing a formal presentation.)  Again, this is in keeping with the goal of things being FUN.
  • Size of group – We haven’t had problems with the size of the group per se.  We get between 6 and 20 people most months which is a good size.  We’ve been asked about including other offices in other states in the group.  We do have a phone bridge for people within the company and have invited people from one or two other offices on occasion recently.  And this is fine if it is small.  If there are too many from too many offices, it changes the spirit of the group.  And there are already company wide information exchange type groups in place.  This particular item is something we are going to have to monitor so we don’t become victims of our own success and lose the benefits of a New York based group.
  • Varying formats – Having a mix of presentations and moderated discussion has served us well.  Presentations are good when someone has a lot of experience with a technology.  (or can throw something together on it.)  Moderated discussion is good when multiple people have lots of small thoughts.  And the moderator doesn’t have to be an expert.  Just like at JavaRanch where I moderate the BlackBerry forum without knowing anything about BlackBerry development.  Whenever I moderate at the discussion group, I come with a list of questions/talking points.
  • Hook to real work topics – Most of the time topics involve technologies or emerging technologies someone in the company is working on.  Or planning to work on.  Or a cross cutting concern like performance.
  • Range of topics – You’ll notice I said most of the time.  Some of our topics have nothing to do with work.  There’s that FUN thing again.  We also select topics based on what attendees want to hear.
  • Emphasis on interactiveness – While we do have people who just sit and listen, most participants are actively engaged.  This keeps a good dynamic, keeps in informal and keeps it FUN.
  • Different moderators – Trying to have as wide a range of people moderate as possible is helpful.  It gives the group a changing voice.  It helps more people feel invested in the group.  And it gives people a chance to practice leading.
  • Group leaders changing over time – We have had 5 different people co-lead the group at different points it time.  (Co-leaders are good because it is less work and you don’t have to worry about vacations.)  One person left the company.  And two others (including myself) stepped down from actively running the group after getting job responsibilities that would have compromised the informal appearance of the group.  The two of us still attend/moderate and are plenty involved.  But we don’t run it or give the opening/closing remarks anymore.
  • Topic control – I mentioned we are an informal group.  This gives a stronger ability to decline topics.  At times, people from outside the group come to us with ideas.  Some are good ideas and we use them.  Some are “good ideas that don’t fit.”  (There’s no such thing as a bad idea; we like ideas; that’s how brainstorming happens.)  Being able to decline these ideas keeps the group FUN and interesting.

What to think about if starting your own discussion group?

  1. What is your goal?– Knowing what your goal/vision is for the group helps you set it up in a way conclusive to what you want to accomplish.  It also tells you who to advertise your group to.
  2. Do you want it to be official or unofficial?– Both are valid options.  They have different tones/topics/styles and deciding which you have is important.  (Incidentally, the reason I stepped down from running this group is because I became involved with an official one.)
  3. Do you want it to be voluntary or mandatory? – Even an official group is hard to make mandatory.  Beware of this option.
  4. When is good to meet?– Think about when meetings are generally scheduled in your company.  It is ok to change this until you stabilize.  But then try to stick to the same date/time.
  5. What is a good group size?– What is your target?  Is there a number that is too high or too low?
  6. How do you gain critical mass? – It’s much easier to run a group than to start one.  Think about what you can do to get people to come to your first few meetings.


I used the word FUN a lot in this post.  That’s really the vision for this group.  Good techies are passionate about technology.  While that doesn’t always come out amidst business activities, our group is an opportunity to channel that pure FUN for what we do.

4 thoughts on “Starting a voluntary discussion group

  1. This is awesome. I did the same kind of thing when I was at Sun, starting also as a technical book club, but I made every mistake. If yo had written this post about, oh, 9 years ago, things would have gone better for me ; )

    This is all excellent advice. One problem I had was that my expectations were based around my personal interest in certain topics, and was often a little disappointed if others did not Share My Enthusiasm For This Really Crucial Topic. Turned out they felt the same way about me with other topics… I needed to do a better job of recognizing that the group was diverse and had different passions and strengths. I did not work hard enough to see the ways in which everything discussed still fit perfectly within the goals/vision for the group.

    Cheers and thanks for this post. (and I just saw the new book you helped with… Huge thanks for that too!)

  2. This is awesome ,i would like to attend to .please provide the information to connect to the conversations .

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