Big room events in the digital age

by Alexander Badini, 21.07.2020

Big room events in the digital age

by Alexander Badini, 21.07.2020

Alexander BadiniAgile Transformation

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The continuing impact of the COVID 19 pandemic faces companies with major, and in many cases new, challenges. Within a few days, companies had to learn to work (wherever possible) predominantly with employees in their home office and to hold meetings remotely. This was the only way to maintain (regular) operations.

The lack of face-to-face interaction is also a major challenge for agile working methods – face-to-face communication is already anchored in the values and principles of the agile manifesto. In a previous blog post, we reported about how P3 successfully carried out a first “Big Room Event“, a “Program Increment Planning” (large room planning in the Scaled Agile Framework; short: PI Planning) with a customer at the beginning of April with over 50 completely separated participants, completely digital and remote.

Especially in times of “social distancing” we support success stories with and for our customers with our P3 guiding principle “Business As Unusual“. So we can proudly say that we have not only taken a makeshift approach to the situation, but also a new and sustainable way for face-to-face communication in a digitalized business world.

However, one main finding can already be deduced: under these new circumstances, there is no universal recipe for the implementation of remote work and “Big Room Events”. More than ever before, it is necessary to adapt the implementation individually to the prevailing conditions in order to deal with specific circumstances.

Our various experiences over the past few months now allow us to distinguish between different applications of remote “Big Room Events” and to divide them into five different use cases. These differ in the following aspects:

  • the number of participants (10, 100, or even > 1,000)
  • the integration (technical, organizational) of partners and service providers
  • the consideration of time zones and locations (digital events now offer the possibility to expand the circle of participants to a worldwide catchment area)
  • the degree of connectedness and shared working experience (have the participants already worked together before, possibly even physically in one place)
  • the nature and complexity of the respective objectives

USE CASE #1

The ambitious ones

“The ambitious ones” are at the beginning of their agile transformation. This process becomes even more challenging when the teams have to collaborate in a “remote setting” right at the beginning of their collaboration. In order to compensate for the lack of shared working experience, “the ambitious ones” are going to work much more motivated so that they can evolve quickly in scaled, agile collaboration, regardless of the external situation.

Whenever possible, “the ambitious ones” choose an alternating system of fully remote and on-site Big Room events, to enable the development of team spirit and trust between the team members.

Especially at the beginning of a collaboration, the need for face-to-face communication is high in order to establish a common basis of trust. Through recurring on-site events, the teams get to know each other, coordinate their working methods, and thus lay the foundation for achieving the same level of productivity in remote events.

What generally applies to virtual “Big Room Events” must be a special focus for “the ambitious ones”: the extensive preparation of the event is of utmost importance. All roles have to be briefed in detail beforehand in order to internalize their responsibilities. The pre-prioritization of the backlog before the event is essential in this setting.

A communication tool such as Microsoft Teams, Skype, or Zoom is used for the implementation of the event, paired with a graphical collaboration tool such as Miro or DEON as support. The last-named tools help the young team to work together in the best possible way and to further develop ideas despite geographical distance. To ensure a smooth process, three new roles were introduced in this Use Case: The online director moderates the “virtual plenum” and ensures that coordination needs between the teams are met. In addition, online moderators support the Scrum Masters in the team breakout sessions with questions about the use of the tools. In order to be able to solve technical problems that the online director cannot solve on his own at any time, a tech support team is deployed throughout. A dry run of the entire setup before the actual meeting shows whether there is room for improvement or whether there is still room for adjustment before the actual implementation.

The learning curve of “the ambitious ones” is steep – this is why the retrospective should be of great importance in order to further facilitate the learning iterations. However, the tools and the alternating system of remote/onsite events have proven their worth, as well have additional roles.

USE CASE #2

The young and wild ones

“The young & wild ones” find their own path – and perhaps they don’t know it very well themselves beforehand. Only proxies participate in their “Big Room Planning”, not the developers themselves. No dedicated agenda was set in advance, only a rough guideline for the workshop. If competencies are required during the planning workshop, they will only be called in for the meeting if necessary and will participate in the respective time slot.

One could also call this situation “creative chaos”. “The young & wild ones” develop highly complex products, and the mindset within the organization is very heterogeneous. These differences should be addressed: one goal of “big room planning” is also to get the many participants to agree on a uniform mindset. The main goal of the event: Commitment to the goals of the upcoming iteration.

The-Young-And-Wild-Ones-Event-Characters
To implement the event remotely, this type of organization, similar to Use Case 1, uses a communication tool and an ALM tool (Application Lifecycle Management) such as Jira or Microsoft Azure DevOps. A collaboration tool for visualization like “the ambitious ones” used is not adopted here. The reason for this: due to open licensing topics, no such tool was available in the organization at the time of planning, but would have been desirable due to the need for creative solution-finding.

The greatest challenge of the “young & wild ones”: many attempts are made to establish an agile culture, but these attempts often remain superficial and abroad, deeper understanding of the subject matter and overall coordination is lacking. Accordingly, the need for training and education on agile working methods to further develop the organization with regard to this goal remains high. The workshop goals were achieved, but as mentioned above, a collaboration tool would be desirable, and there is also potential for optimization in the preparation.

USE CASE #3

The established ones

Of all five of our Use Cases, “the established ones” have the most experience in their cooperation. The teams have been working together for over ten PIs (more than 3 years). This experience allowed them to develop an extremely comprehensive PI planning with several Agile Release Trains and a total number of almost 2,000 participants. In this setting, almost all but a few participants worked from their home offices and are therefore geographically separated from each other – this also means that we can speak of almost 2,000 locations where this workshop takes place simultaneously.

Big room planning in this scale – this requires particularly careful and extensive preparation. Like the two previous Use Cases, “the established ones” use a conference tool to collaborate via audio and video. A visual collaboration tool such as Miro or DEON is not used here, but the reason is different from the “young & wild ones”: The well-rehearsed team attaches great importance to efficiency – and in order to guarantee this, they rely on well-known tools and do not experiment with new, unknown tools.

In retrospect, such a tool was not absolutely necessary in this planning. The participants know each other well and understand each other literally blindly – the visualization that a young team like “the ambitious ones” needs is no longer absolutely necessary for mutual understanding and joint work in the planning event itself.

USE CASE #4

The concerned ones

The Use Case “the concerned ones” describes a company where the corporate philosophy and strategy continue to rely on proven means and methods (classic project management). A cautious approach to agile working in the organization is currently being tested in a pilot phase. The company is also in an early stage of maturity with regard to virtual team collaboration.

The participants in this project were selected to participate in a remote “Big Room Event”, but only a fraction of their working time is available to them for their project roles in the agile organizational unit.

The team leaders are explicitly granted time for the big room event as proxies, but as mentioned, they are the only participants. The agenda of the event is tightly planned, many changes are added to ad-hoc.

Before the start of the event, there is also no common understanding of many basic agile topics, such as the distinction between epics and stories. The influence of classic project methods is also evident in the allocation of tasks – these should actually be allocated/chosen by the agile teams themselves.

Technically they implement the planning event with a conference tool (MS Teams, Skype) combined with an ALM tool. This also requires extensive preparation of document templates to ensure a smooth process. For the introduction of a new tool for the visualization of the collaboration, the preparation time was too short – all participants are already strongly challenged with the preparation and the environment.

USE CASE #5

The big family

“The Big Family” characterizes a larger corporate department that organizes its’ townhalls and closed meetings remotely in times of social distancing. The participants know each other very well in advance, but the “family” feels that the exclusive digital interaction reduces the bond in the team and increases misunderstandings. The introduction of daily virtual coffee rounds has proven to be helpful here in the run-up to the event in order to maintain interpersonal exchange and thus cohesion in the department. The focus of these rounds is on an informal exchange; there is no dedicated (working) agenda. Of course, “family” members also find the opportunity in this forum to exchange questions and insights of a professional nature, similar to the physical coffee kitchen in the office.

A further challenge was “mixed” events, in which some of the participants worked remotely, while others were physically present in the office. In such a setting, the remotely connected participants can quickly become second-class participants – a fine line. An “all or none” approach (either all participants on-site or all remote) has proven to be more successful for such events. In order to counteract possible disadvantages, a strong moderator should keep the discussion within a certain frame.

As with all the other remote “Big Room Events” Use Cases presented, it is also recommended for the “family” to support the online meetings with a collaboration and visualization tool (such as Miro or DEON), especially if there are more than 10 participants, and if there is actually a workshop-character of the meeting, where many or even all participants are to be encouraged to contribute ideas.

“Families” often have fears of contact and less experience with such additional collaboration tools, because in the past there was (still) less demand for such tools than for the other use cases – presence appointments were the rule here in the department. Here the “head of the family” is asked to sponsor such tools, if necessary with initial support by a coach.

Conclusion

Our experiences over the last weeks and months have helped us to create a rough classification with the described Use Cases, which challenges can arise in different organizations, and how to achieve the goals of Big Room Events in the best possible way. The answers to questions such as: “Do we need additional roles to be able to handle the event?”, “Which software makes us as efficient as at a face-to-face meeting?” or “Does it make sense to use Miro or DEON as a tool for collaborative collaboration?” vary greatly depending on the use case.

In conclusion, we can state: there is no single right way to implement a virtual “Big Room Event” in these volatile times.

Planning under uncertainty has always been difficult, but the speed at which framework conditions change has never been greater than it is today. When it comes to fully or partially virtual events, factors such as the number of participants, technical setting, or objectives (see introduction; LINK) are crucial and must always be taken into account when planning.

Our Lessons Learned, derived from the 5 Use Cases, for the methodical as well as the technical implementation are the following:

  • Communication tools (audio, video) including screen sharing are essential – MS Teams has advantages as a communication platform including file management, Skype, or zoom as “pure” communication tools are also possible, depending on the context. Important: consider working limits (e.g. MS teams has a limit of 250 participants per session)
  • Visual collaboration tools such as Deon are especially beneficial for events with a focus on creative issues. However, users should be experienced in dealing with the system so as not to hinder the “flow” of the workshop. The bigger the event, the more difficult the deployment can be.
  • Good moderators are in need for all events, both as neutral participants in events where people know each other and as input providers.
  • Additional roles can be introduced if required (the more participants, the more useful it is, e.g. technical support, moderators for small groups).
  • The preparation effort even for virtual events is not to be neglected: a rising effort with a rising number of participants, only at events where participants have known each other for a long time there are efficiencies to be raised.
  • We as P3 have learned to take advantage of the current situation and to take advantage of remote events. In our online training, you can experience live what it means to break new digital ground together with P3.

Read more here.

Mots clés: Agile transformation

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Alexander BadiniAgile Transformation

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Nicolas Lange P3 Agile Transformation

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