I just realized now – a month after the conference – what it was that made Play4Agile a special, magical conference for me. Of course it’s the people, but there is more to it than that.
I am writing this post in hopes of inspiring others to organize similar amazing events.
Located in Germany, seminar center Rückersbach provided a small-scale rural setting with no distractions. Even though it was cloudy the whole weekend it was good to get natural light through the many windows. Looking out onto nature helps too.
Small is Beautiful
With 50 to 60 people, it is really easy to meet everyone at least once, and spend time with people you feel affinity with. Make new friends.
Here is the closing circle where we passed the ball of string along with appreciations. This is possible with such a small group. (Facilitation note: bring a second ball of string).
Longer is better
I have been to one day events, and they do not compare in terms of the depth of connection with others. And building our social networks is what helps us learn. Play4Agile was almost 3 full days. And this made a big difference.
One very nice aspect of this conference was that we all ate together at every meal. Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner. This gave a chance for informal conversation and to bond with one another.
Evenings at the bar provide a great way to connect in a more relaxed setting. I also got to play werewolf for the first time. 20 people played Marshmallow Challenge for the first time.
Open Space Format
The best peer-conference meeting format going. Period.
There is always room for improvement
So, what would I change to make the event even better?
- Coffee breaks. Create session slots in the schedule (on the wall) that respect coffee breaks (like space for lunch). Why? Open Space was invented on the concept that coffee breaks are the best part of the conference.
- Session duration. Create slots of varying size. I know that in theory we can make longer sessions, but in practice not a single person did. And several sessions I attended would have benefited from more time. This would be an experiment, so who knows if it will work.
- People missing beginning/end. One challenge was that some people missed the Friday opening and others missed all or part of Monday. One idea would be to give people a little travel time on the first and last day – so that they are both (almost) full days.
Caveat: If you appear in a photo and would like to be removed, just let me know.
Not only was I fortunate to attend Play4Agile in Germany this week, I also had the privilege of working with the organizing team to act as a Spirit Keeper and help with facilitation. During the opening on Friday night we played Constellations and observed that a lot of people already knew Open Space. So how to explain Open Space rules so that newbies learn enough and yet avoid boring the veterans to death? The answer comes from Training from the back of the room: let them teach each other. Then newbies get individual attention and veterans learn it better by teaching it.
I realized later that this pattern can be used for teaching anything (with help). Not just Open Space rules. See the five simple steps in the diagram below:
- Fist of five for checking the knowledge level of everyone in the room. Let them know to keep their arms and fingers up. (Oops. Not sure what this is really called. Fist of five is actually something different. Please comment if you know…)
- Have them form diverse groups (people with different knowledge levels) of 5 to 7 people. Smaller groups may work well too.
- In small groups, knowledgeable people teach the new folks. In my group, we took turns explaining key concepts and let newbies drive learning by asking questions. Hang posters high enough so people can see them when everyone is standing.
- (Optional) Each group can check how successful learning was using fist of five.
- In the large group, ask the people who learned the most to share one key learning.
On Saturday, the Toronto Agile Software Development Community had its inaugural Open Space event called Agile Open Toronto. It went really well. Lot’s of positive feedback and of course tips for improving next time.
The purpose of this post is to share how the event was run for attendees and other Open Space enthusiasts.
Setting up the Space
As a not-for-profit, the City of Toronto provided us with a great space for free. You can see us setting up below.
Rather than follow the suggested approach of an unstructured bulletin board, we elected to create a grid. Why? We find techies get really frustrated and will sort sessions by time anyway. Note that some of the session slots are marked reserved and only get opened up once there are enough sessions to run all day.
Lawrence Welcomes Everyone
Long-time host of XPToronto/Agile meetings opened the space.
Michael and Gino Pair Facilitate
We pair program, we pair test, we pair coach. We really like working together since it provides variety for listeners and it’s easier to remember everything between the two of us. As you can see, we are walking in a circle to set the tone and explain how open space works.
The Initial Rush
Once the call to action is given, there is a rush of motion and energy as people write session proposals.
The Board at the end of the day
Here’s what the board looked like at the end of the day. You can click on it to see a hi-res version and read the session titles.
Many thanks to all the volunteers: Edwin, Farooq, Tom, Bob, Micrea and others who arrived early and helped out. (If I forgot you, remind me and I’ll add your name)