Sunday, October 16, 2016

How we used to Scrum and XP to keep the conference on schedule

Last week, I attended and facilitated Scrum Day Portugal. This was one of the best conferences I have ever attended: Great talks, new information, great discussions off-line both with participants and speakers! And despite starting 15 minutes late, we finished on time. Everything just flowed! How did we do that?

It didn't start out that way. Scrum Day Portugal is a two day event. I arrived Tuesday afternoon, half way into the first day. The speakers were interesting, the talks were great, but we were running late. It felt like a death march project, even though the conference had barely begun.

My job was to facilitate the second day. We had a really tight schedule! Seven igniter talks followed by 2 Pecha Kuchas and 3 ½ hours of Open Space. I realized that staying on schedule would be both challenging and really important. If people are exhausted at the Open Space, they can employ the law of two feet (leave), and all the air goes out of the event. This would be a disaster. How to fix the problem?

Tuesday night, the speakers went out for dinner together. We talked about the problem. A big challenge was that most participants arrived late on Tuesday, and would probably do so again on Wednesday, so we could not just ignore our customers and start on time. Another challenge was that one speaker needed more time than originally planned. Not knowing how late we would have to start, we couldn't decide how to address the scheduling problem. We agreed to make the decision Wednesday morning.

On Wednesday, I invited all the speakers to a daily scrum, shortly before the opening was scheduled. While I tried to make a plan for the start times of each speaker, Chet Hendrickson started writing cards on the table. He made a card for each speaker, the coffee break and lunch.
Visualizing the program à la XP

At this point, I gave up on my “spreadsheet”! Using Chet's cards and the original schedule, we calculated the duration of each session. We agreed to start 15 minutes late, but keep the original timings. So we calculated the new start times for each speaker. What about the speaker, who needs more time? “I can shorten my talk, no problem!” said Manny Gonzales, CEO of the Scrum Alliance (when was the last time you heard a CEO volunteer to shorten their talk?).

What about transition times? There are no transition times, this is the time each of us starts. “Oh, so I have to shorten my talk a bit.” We all understood the problem and the goal. We had implicitly agreed to do our best to make it happen.

“The key word is responsibility,” explained Chet, “Everyone in the team has an obligation to do the right thing. The cards are a tool he uses in Extreme Programming to visualize system architecture, and thanks to the visualization, everyone knew what they had to do.

How did we stay on time? During the each session, I just needed to know who the next speaker was, when their session was scheduled to start. The speakers asked for a friendly wave at five minutes before the end of their session, so they could remain aware of when the had to finish.

In the worst case, a session ended in 1 whole minute late. Some of the speakers over-compensated (shortened), so by lunchtime, we were back on the original schedule!

So the conference ran smoothly and everybody left the conference with a smile. What does this have to do with Scrum and XP?
  • Someone was responsible for the process, and raised the questions. In Scrum, that person is called the Scrum Master.
  • The team got together to figure out how to achieve the day's goal. In Scrum that's called a Daily Scrum.  We left the meeting with a plan and a common goal.
  • The Scrum Master remained focused on the process, giving friendly reminders when it was helpful. 
  • The time-boxing gave us orientation and helped us deliver a great conference. 
  • Visualizing the problem and giving it to the whole team made solving the problem much easier. (I don't know what Chet calls his board, but it's a great approach.)