Reflections on the 2011 London Scrum Gathering
I am writing this post whilst travelling home from London after my first Scrum Gathering. It has been a hectic but rewarding three days. Even though I am dog-tired I want to get my thoughts down while the experience is fresh in my mind. My reasons are two-fold. This will help cement some of the interesting things I have learned. Secondly it gives me something to do on the four hour journey from London to Glasgow (it has been a long time since I last travelled this route and I cannot get over the fact that I’m on a moving train and enjoying a wi-fi internet connection. I love progress). I hope that sharing my experiences as a Scrum Gathering newbie will aid those thinking of attending their first Scrum Gathering.
First some observations on the venue and facilities. The content of any conference can be top-notch but will be let down if the surroundings are not up to scratch. This gathering was held at the Park Plaza Riverbank hotel which is located on the south bank of the Thames within view of the Houses of Parliament. The hotel was excellent with comfortable rooms, friendly and helpful staff, a varied breakfast service, adequate lunch, top-class conference facilities and reliable wi-fi. As expected it was easy to travel to the hotel with it being less than a half hour walk from Vauxhall tube station.
The level of organisation at the gathering was impressive. With the keynotes and various sessions spread over two floors and many rooms clear sign-posting and floor plans were essential. Fortunately these were provided and any changes to the schedule were clearly communicated. Scrum Alliance staff were on hand to assist at the help desks and this came in handy for me when I could not find a session (my own fault – I left the handy booklet that contained the floor plans in my hotel room on the first afternoon). The Gathering Chair Nigel Baker and all of the Scrum Alliance staffers present did an excellent job organising and running the gathering and are to be congratulated.
That’s the banal but very important stuff out of the way. So what about the actual content?
Each day the program ran from 09:00 to 17:00. The first two days of the program began with ninety-minute long key-notes. These were followed by three ninety-minute long session slots interspersed with coffee breaks and a buffet lunch. The format of the sessions was to have seven different topics running in parallel across the many conference rooms. These were categorised into several different streams such as Scrum, Coaching, Product Owner, Change, War Stories etc. The scheduling of the sessions meant that I had to make some difficult decisions as I could only attend six of the 42 available sessions. This was tricky as so many of the sessions that looked pertinent to me clashed. In fact fully a quarter of the session program looked useful to my own work. The program contained a descriptive paragraph of each and was available at the gathering’s website a few weeks before it started. I spent a lot of time on the journey down deciding which I would ideally like to attend and putting them in an order of preference. In addition scrum experts were on hand for drop-in Scrum clinics. Unfortunately I was too busy in the formal sessions to take advantage of the clinics. However, I think they are a great idea and would be very useful for anyone with questions or concerns about their own implementation of Scrum.
Rather than go through every session I attended I’ll write about some of the highlights. While most of the content was of a high-quality some items stood above the others in terms of education, applicability and sheer entertainment.
“Managing a Collaborative Multi-National Team in Real Time Using Agile / Lean / Scrum /XP – Building a 100 MPG Road Car in Three Months”, Opening Keynote, Joe Justice
This was an AWESOME opening keynote. I’ve sometimes wondered if Scrum and Agile could escape the confines of software projects and be used to help produce something different. But a car? A 100 MPG car with low-level sport car levels of performance? Built by a team distributed in terms of time and location? I wouldn’t have thought so but Joe and a group of volunteers have done all of this and more and continue to improve and innovate in this and other product spaces. Joe is a great speaker and thoroughly deserved the massive applause he received. Check out www.wikispeed.com for more details.
“Understanding Each Other: Crucial Skills for Teams, Leaders, and Coaches”, “Scrum And” Stream, Tom Mellor
This session discussed how to handle “crucial conversations”. It presented a series of techniques that help to manage stressful or difficult discussions to stop them turning out badly resulting in either silent or violent behavior. Anyone in a working environment will have been on one side of a difficult conversation and had it go badly wrong. The techniques are simple enough but, I would imagine, tricky to apply successfully (indeed it was accepted that some conversations cannot be managed). However, role-playing was used to good effect in the session to give the attendees some practise.
“Would Your Team Survive the Zombie Apocalypse?”, “Bonus” Stream, James Scrimshire
I LOVED this session but am saving up a full write-up for my next post. Zombies and Scrum. Inspired. (Update – the full write up is here)
“Using the Daily Scrum to Identify Impediments”, “Bottom-Up” Stream, Karen Greaves
A Scrum team won’t always be up-front about impediments in the daily stand-up or in the retrospective as they may not know they have a problem. I already had a couple of basic techniques I used to identify when the team was not able to sprint as fast as possible. This session furnished me with even more provided by both Karen and the other attendees. This was a great experience in cooperative learning. (As an aside it wasn’t even dampened for me when Karen dismissed my dual role as team member and Scrum Master as a ‘dysfunction’. I had no idea before the gathering that there was a movement within the community that feels that being a Scrum Master should always be a full-time job. I don’t agree but will remain open-minded for now. Certainly from subsequent discussions I had with my colleagues and other attendees there is not a consensus on the issue).
“Scrumbrella – Scaling Scrum”, “Top-Down” Stream, Nigel Baker
This session covered how to scale Scrum and how to definitely not scale Scrum. It also touched on the relative merits of Rolf Harris, Harry Potter and The Robot from “Lost in Space”. A highlight for me was the showing of a scene from John Carpenter’s “The Thing” to represent what happens when architecture gets out of control. The faces of those in the room who were not inured to horror movies were worth a watch during the clip. Nigel’s presentation was entertaining, controlled chaos which succeeded in communicating to me the reasoning and practicalities of the previously nebulous “Scrum of Scrums”.
Things changed on day three. There was no key-note to start the day and the formal sessions were replaced by Open Space sessions. The idea was that attendees could propose their own sessions. Before the assembled gathering they would take turns to book a time and place and briefly pitch their session. I had my fears about this structure but it was explained that we would be encouraged to leave sessions that did not match our expectations and drop into others at will. I attended a few sessions and did abandon some part-way through. Some weren’t delivering for me and, worse still, in one I witnessed little more than an exercise in ego polishing. Only one really delivered for me and it concerned bringing Scrum to off-shore teams. To begin with it wasn’t quite clicking as various attendees reiterated that there was an issue and a goal to reach to solve it but could not explain how to achieve it despite being insistent that they had solved the issue. The session came alive when some of the attendees who were from India explained from their side how they had been able to promote Scrum in association with their on-shore colleagues to create a productive working environment.
All-in-all the Scrum Gathering was a great experience. Some of the sessions and key-notes were excellent and I picked up many techniques and practices that I will be taking back to my own team and organisation. I also met some great people and indulged in providing a little informal Scrum mentoring myself over lunch on the third day. I’m not sold on Open Space at all but it could be I was just unlucky in my choice of sessions. If you get the opportunity to attend a Scrum Gathering I would recommend that you grab it with both hands.