Designing Communities to forge meaningful relationships

Reflections from conversations with Agile, User Experience & Product community organisers in South East Asia

Michael Ong
Oct 4, 2018 · 8 min read

“Complex, interdependent issues are increasingly shaping the context for strategy. Yet the pressures created by these issues tend to keep leaders in a continual “doing” mode, with little or no time for reflection and real thinking.

We believe that there is a greater need than ever for leaders to meet and genuinely “think together” — the real meaning of dialogue. Only through creating such opportunities can there be any hope of building the shared understanding and coordinated innovative action …”

- Presence : An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organisations and Society

Reflection from May 23rd 2017

In May 2017, I reflected on the last 5 years spent in volunteering within the Agile Singapore, UX Singapore and #ProductBeer community and last 13 years in different communities as a participant. I took down some notes of what has gone well, what has not and could be improved in conversations with various community organisers in South East Asia.

Prior to my volunteering experience, I was like many in the communities taking part in various online discussion boards and in person meetups since 2005. Back then Hardwarezone (Singapore) and a few online forums were the easiest ways to connect and there were few groups formed yet.

I had discovered and taken part in many interesting in-person meetups like Web Standards Group Singapore. The Singapore PHP User Group Meetup, Barcamp Singapore, Pecha Kucha Singapore and Webcamp KL. There was a hunger to learn from everyone involved and most groups were small cosy setups which meant it was easy to connect with people.

When I was moving from an area that I knew very well in Technology to Agile, User Experience Design and Product in 2010. I was fortunate to meet 4 organisers who would shape how I volunteer my time in the community. Raven Chai from UXSG, Stanly Lau from Agile Singapore, Daniel & Jo Wong from UXHK.

Combined meetup from July 2017 for Agile Singapore, UXSG and #ProductBeer

Moving from a participant who was receiving lots of valuable lessons in the community towards a volunteer required a lot of time, commitment and dedication towards self-learning, doing and reflection. Thankfully, the meetups were still relatively small and easy to know people and have meaningful conversations about our experiences back then.

However as the years went by and the communities grew, it is harder and harder to stay in contact as people moved on from various communities as their job nature or lives changed. There were few options for each learning progression and we saw people depart and most of their knowledge and experience lost. Newcomers would keep flowing in and ask similar type of questions.

When some of us started to work in the region, the lack of a support network for us grew more apparent as we had to re-invest time to re-discover and go through each community over and over with each new country visited.

With the conferences, we had an opportunity to engage those who moved on to larger roles and could share their stories. With UXSG 2013–16, we took the chance to shape main themes for the community that shaped how I would work with others in other countries.

UXSG 2013 : Collaboration Through Diversity and Bridging Insights Into Design
UXSG 2014 : Impact Through Design
UXSG 2016 : Transformation in Economy/industry, Communities, Products/services and Oneself

Shortly after the UXSG 2013 conference, a group of us came together to discuss what were our habits in learning and we realised these values hold true for us when it comes to meetups that we enjoy:

  • Transparency
  • Sharing + Collaboration
  • Practical, tested, validated (pragmatic)
  • Action bias
  • Learning driven

As volunteers, we were also guided by principles :

  • Action speaks louder than words
  • Lead by example
  • Volunteer not only you want to, but also because you can

A few of the overseas participants of UXSG 2013 have also gone on to create some truly wonderful events like UXID and UXPH (2014–2018). UXSG has also gone on to experiment with open space format since 2013 and in Feb 2018 moved to smaller meaningful meetups that have small group discussions.

Since then, some of us have met regularly since Aug 2015 on a monthly basis which now spans meetups in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippines. The group is small and regularly finds opportunities to have small group discussions which extends into larger meetups at the right times. Dinners are more common than regular speaker-type meetups and some great friendships have been made through such shared activities.

Recently in April 2018, 43 of us met in Bali to discuss how might we lift the level of discussion around the product community in South East Asia and one of the major themes was around “Designing Communities to forge meaningful relationships”.


Credit : From Me to We — the shift I see in powerful communities

Fabian Pfortmüller, a community builder, recently wrote a great piece on “From Me to We — the shift I see in powerful communities”.

Fabian describes “Everyone enters a new group with a pure personal identity, the Me identity, curious to find out more about the group. But then, in some communities, the Me behavior doesn’t go away, but it transforms over time into a We behavior. On the flip side, in dysfunctional communities the We identity never manifests, it stays a group of people with self-focused identities and behavior.”

With larger communities in each country with significant growth in new visitors, there was increasing Me behaviour observed.

I show up as a consumer: what’s in it for me?

I show up feeling entitled: I’m expecting to be served.

I ignore conflicts or walk away from the group the moment they occur.

Reciprocity: I’m open to helping people, but I expect something in return.

I show up with my best self: I tell my strongest stories, I pitch people on my projects, I only show the sunny part of my being.

I assume that the group’s norms are the same as society’s norms. So I will act in the group just as I act otherwise.

I will only trust the people I build personal relationships with — why should I trust anyone else?

I come into the group with my guard up — you never know what other people’s incentives are.

Credit : From Me to We — the shift I see in powerful communities

In late 2016–2018, we bridged 3 different communities (Agile, UX, Product) in combined meetups which generated significant conversations around what our learning areas are in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. This nudged some in the group to think about the larger We.

Some example of events that helped identify the We in these communities :

I see myself as a co-creator of this group. I know that unless I do something, nothing will happen. This is our group and I feel it belongs to me as well, in a small part.

While I’m not expecting anything from other people, I feel empowered to bring up my own ideas within the group and act on them.

I see conflicts within the group as natural and healthy. When they do arise, I proactively try to address them.

I help people in this group, because I love this group and because I feel so connected to the people in it. I help because I want to and I don’t expect something in return.

I show up in the group with my whole self, the good and the bad. I feel safe here and I’m willing to be vulnerable, because I assume that the group will support me in those moments.

This group has different values than society overall, and I try to live these values actively when I’m with people of the group. These strong values are a big reason why I care about this group.

Because I have built trust into the overall group, I have started to trust people in this group even when I have never met them before, because we share the same values, the same experiences.

I feel safe in this group and I feel that here I can be the person who I truly am.

Credit : From Me to We — the shift I see in powerful communities


There are now more than 40 to 50 meetup groups in the region which sit between monthly to annual activities. With this much learning potential, it also becomes something of a complicated web to navigate for anyone new joining the conversations. The past three years have also seen more people stepping into regional roles and trying to learn and figure out the different places to learn and meet people.

With all these reflections and lessons from different communities, I reached out to a few organisers to try formats that mix between speaker-type to lean coffee or open space formats that encourage higher participation and engagement.

UX Bandung and UXID organisers having a deep think about purpose of the community
Product PH trying out a new format
Agile Indonesia + Product Jakarta

In April 2018, we invited 43 product people from South East Asia (and beyond) to gather for a 2.5 day deep dive into what matters to us as a community and 4 themes emerged:

Product Tonic Unconference (Online) on Oct 31st 2018

With so many communities to learn from, we taking our first small step post-retreat to organise an online unconference on Oct 31st 2018 (6pm to 9pm GMT+8). We hope that this invite will encourage many people who are moving into different roles in a product team to gather and share their stories and experiences.

Join us in the ongoing conversation across different learning communities in South East Asia!

Tickets for the upcoming Product Tonic Unconference is still available here on Eventbrite (link).

Product Team Tonic

This is series of ongoing conversations with #ProdMgmt community organisers from [ #ProductBeer #PMHuddle (Malaysia) #ProductTank (Singapore, Jakarta & Bangkok) #ProductPH (Philippines) #LTPConf (Australia)] + Product Gin & Tonic Retreat 2018 participants

Michael Ong

Written by

Community Builder + Facilitator, Trainer & Coach for Individuals & Product teams to thrive in work & (serious) play AND Professional Leisure Cyclist

Product Team Tonic

This is series of ongoing conversations with #ProdMgmt community organisers from [ #ProductBeer #PMHuddle (Malaysia) #ProductTank (Singapore, Jakarta & Bangkok) #ProductPH (Philippines) #LTPConf (Australia)] + Product Gin & Tonic Retreat 2018 participants

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