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Learnings From Organizing an Agile Conference

Well another Gatineau-Ottawa Agile Tour conference #GOAT14 is over, and once again it was a resounding success. This year, the founding fathers who started GOAT and led it for the first two years decided to pass the torch to Agile Ottawa. So this year’s organizing committee was made up largely of self-employed Agile coaches, consultants and trainers. These are crazy busy people, most of them traveling four days out of five. It was not at all clear to me how we would fare.

Just fine, as it turns out. One of the things I love about helping organize GOAT is that I get to work with people better than myself. That’s one of the best ways to learn new things. Here are some learnings that stand out:

Trust and the Self-Organizing Team

Effectiveness was absolutely key to our success. People were already overworked before adding conference organizing to their agendas. We met by Skype for one hour a week and kept a Trello kanban board to manage our tasks. The first time we met in person was the night before the conference. Wow! We were a high-performing team that was fun to be on. But why? What made the team work so well?

  • Trust Trust makes everything so much more productive and reliable. This means having confidence in people’s competence as well as their character. And it means only agreeing to do things you are sure you can do. It means keeping your commitments. And it means asking for help.
  • Respecting Differences Our team was made up of a wide range of personalities, with differing opinions and ways of doing things. While we did not always agree, we never let disagreements slow us down or distract us from the goal of running a high quality conference. We made our differences a strength.
  • Volunteering People volunteered to take ownership of items on the Trello board. People volunteered to help others as needed. Somehow, the work always got covered.
  • Using Tools Both technological, and ways of working. Trello, Skype, Google Drive, Doodle to arrange meeting times, “voting” tools…. We had a huge advantage in that experienced Lean/Agile coaches have large, proven toolboxes to draw from. This year we are making heavy use of Slack and its working out really well.

Making the Decision in the Last Responsible Moment

It amazed me how much this one principle improved our effectiveness, optimizing our work. Start with the goal, like “run a high quality agile conference on November 23rd”. Then identify the last date when a “big rock” item can be completed, allowing for the normal sort of glitches that come along. For example: “Speakers selected”, “Keynotes confirmed”, “Registration opens”. Don’t build a project plan! You don’t need that level of overhead!

And for every decision or task, ask the question “What is the last responsible moment we can make this decision?” Make a kanban card for it if needed. Its a huge stress reliever to be able to put off items to the future. But more importantly, its a huge effectiveness and “flow” improver. More information about a decision or a work item just naturally accumulates over time. Often a decision that could have spurred many hours of investigation, debate, and angst just becomes obvious if you put it off and let the information naturally accumulate.

Kaizen - Continuous Improvement

Did I mention that working with experienced Lean/Agile coaches is fun and a way to learn? We were always looking for ways to improve the way we did things. Performing small “experiments” to see if something could be improved, and then adopting the improvement if it proved effective was a constant activity. There’s a good analogy to the process of natural selection in evolution:

  • Improvements can come from anywhere, anyone, at any time
  • An improvement gets tried “in the real world”, and if its really an improvement it gets adopted.
  • Like natural selection, the improvements are small … lots of little steps
  • The improvements are continuous, they are “part of the system”, not something that happens outside of it
  • There is a bias to trying an improvement, rather than talking about it, planning it, putting a lot of process behind it, etc.
  • Improvements get accepted/rejected without a lot of ceremony, based on whether they really help or not.

Its the night before the conference and I’m working with Glenn Waters stuffing 300 handout bags with swag:

  1. We have the swag lined up on a table and we carry a bag down the line putting each item into the bag.
  2. Experiment 1: Trying to carry the bag while stuffing it is awkward, so Glenn proposes we put the bags at the end of the table. We simply pick up all the material, then stuff it into the bag all at once.
    • We try this and measure our time. This one change doubles our speed at stuffing bags!
  3. Experiment 2: We have no good place to put the stuffed bags. So we put a box right after the box of empty bags that we can place the completed bags in. Every 5-10 minutes as the box of empty bags runs low, and the box of stuffed bags is filled, we take a quick break to replace the boxes.
    • This increases our bag stuffing prowess by a further 25%!
  4. Experiment 3: Glenn and I are “males of a certain age”, so have back problems. Leaning over the table is causing us back pain and slowing us down. Bryan Beecham suggests we put the whole table up on chairs to raise the height of the table. OK… I’ll admit it, I thought Bryan was a little crazy, and the idea could never work. But rather than debate the idea, it only takes a couple of minutes to try it out:
    • The chairs fit perfectly under the table, raising the table to the perfect height for us.
    • With this change, we are running 3 times faster stuffing bags than when we started!

A 3 times performance improvement from some small experiments tried while we were doing the task. Thinking about ways to improve a tedious task also increased our interactions with each other and made a tedious task a lot more fun!

I can’t wait to see what new things I learn organizing #GOAT-15 this year!