Book Clubs That Don’t Suck

Tips for running a book club to support group learning in teams

Sorrel Harriet
4 min readFeb 23, 2023
The Book Club episode, This Country Series 3 (2020), BBC iPlayer

“Nobody had read the book”

“People didn’t turn up”

“Not everyone’s a reader”

“People felt intimidated”

If you’ve ever tried (and failed) to run a book club, chances are you’ve heard some of the above before.

And if that’s the case, perhaps it’s time to ditch the traditional book club model (i.e. group of people turning up to talk about a book they read.)

Here are my tips for running a book club that’s engaging, inclusive, and supports group learning in the workplace.

Set high-level goals for the book club

In other words, what has brought this group together? What are you hoping to learn?

Goals can be context specific, and they can change. For example, let’s say the group are a newly formed platform team seeking to advance their knowledge of DevOps. Their shared goals might look something like this:

“Identify characteristics of a high-performing platform team”

“Identify gaps in our DevOps knowledge and experience”

Create a board to informally monitor progress against the goals.

☆ Connect it to your team learning strategy

If the book club is a tactic agreed by the team to help them address a known knowledge gap, you’re more likely to generate the commitment you need to make it work. If your team doesn’t know where its gaps are or what its learning strategy is, perhaps start there?! (Topic for another day!)

Being able to explain how a book club is going to add value can help create buy-in from leadership and justify the time it takes to run one.

☆ Choose a book that is available as an audiobook

Anything you can do to remove barriers to participation is going to help make your book group a success. So, rather than allowing anyone to suggest any book, set some boundaries around the choice of book. For example, choose a book that is,

  • available in a language everyone is competent in
  • accessibly published
  • written by authors who have published related digital content (e.g. videos, blog articles etc.)

A good choice for our fictitious platform team could be The DevOps Handbook, for example.

Agree on some core protocols

This can encourage commitment, foster psychological safety, and introduce accountability.

Agreeing core protocols can be a simple exercise in which you invite individuals to propose behaviours/expectations for others to either agree with or challenge. For example,

“I propose we meet once per month.”

Everyone agrees.

“I propose we prioritise attending this book club.”

One person disagrees, and suggests a modification:

“I propose we prioritise attending this book club over anything non-critical.”

Everyone agrees.

And so on…

☆ Agree a section or chapter to consume before the next meetup

Rather than setting the daunting task of reading an entire book, break it into manageable chunks of a reasonable size given the frequency of the meetups. This can also be a case for meeting more frequently. I would suggest monthly as minimum.

☆ Structure each meetup around open-ended questions

Ask questions that connect the book content to the high-level goals of the group.

Examples our fictitious platform team might use,

“Which of the problems highlighted by the authors do you recognise in our organisation or team?”

“How will a platform team help to scale DevOps at [Our Company]?”

The format for discussing the questions could vary (e.g. use something from liberating structures such as 1–2–4-all or conversation café.)

☆ Have a plan for how each meetup will be facilitated

This can vary each time. You could have a facilitator rota, and the responsibilities of the facilitator could be agreed upon by the group. For example, it could be the facilitator who sets the questions and chooses the discussion format.

With a relatively small amount of planning, the facilitator can support the group to get much more value from the meetup.

☆ Identify key takeaways linked to the high-level goals

Another job for the facilitator perhaps: support the group to summarise key takeaways from the meetup, and record them somewhere everyone can access.

☆ Create actions from the key takeaways

These could be individual actions. For example,

“This week I am going to try X”

or they could be actions for the whole group. For example,

“We’ll work together to summarise our key takeaways in a micro blog post”

Record the actions somewhere and revisit them at the start of the next meetup. This will reinforce the purpose and progress being made by the group, as well as the learning itself. It also gives you something tangible to hold up if anyone ever questions the value of the book group!

☆ Consider ways to engage asynchronously

If finding time to meetup is problematic, you could consider how to engage asynchronously (e.g. using Miro or Slack to respond to the questions.)

☆ Review how the book club is going

Hold a retro on it every now and then, and be prepared to change course or experiment with different ways of doing things. It might take a few iterations before your book group finds its flow.

☆ Celebrate success

Having used your book club as a springboard for demonstrable learning, make sure people know about it! Perhaps your team can talk about the difference it made at an inter team event.

☆ Consider recirculating the books

If everyone in your book group purchased a hard copy of a certain book, maybe you could consider ways to recirculate the books. Perhaps there is another team in your organisation who could re-run your book club?

☆ Be creative

Of course, there are plenty of other ways you might supercharge your book club. The tips I’ve shared here are focused on group learning, but that might not be your group’s reason for coming together. Explore what you want from your club and brainstorm different ways of achieving that.

If you have any of your own tips or suggestions, please comment with your experiences.

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