I attend, enjoy, hopefully contribute to, and get a lot from, the local tester meetups and Lean Coffee in Cambridge. But I’d had the thought kicking around for a long time that I’d like to try a peer workshop inspired by MEWT, DEWT, LEWT and the like. I finally asked a few others, including the local meetup organisers, and got mostly positive noises, so I decided to give it a go.
I wrote a short statement to frame the idea, based on LEWT’s:
CEWT (Cambirdge Exploratory Workshop on Testing) is an exploratory peer workshop. We take the view that discussions are more interesting than lectures. We enjoy diverse ideas, and limit some activities in order to work with more ideas.
and proposed a mission for an initial attempt to validate it locally on a small scale.
Other local testers helped to refine the details in usual the testing ways – you know: criticism, questions, thought experiments, challenges, comparisons, mockery and the rest – and a list of potential attendees was drawn up. In parallel I solicited advice from the groups that had inspired me, asking what’s worked well and what what hasn’t, particularly in the events and in the organisation of them.
This post aggregates and roughly sorts their responses, removing mentions of specific groups or people. I’d like to thank all of them for being so forthcoming and open with their experience and advice.
I wanted to pull two specific comments out, two that I tried to keep uppermost in my mind thoughout:
- As you will understand: there is no best practice.
- The thought is this: at a peer workshop, I should consider everyone my peer. For the duration of the workshop, I will attempt to listen to – and question – anyone who I share the room with, regardless of whether they have more or less experience, or whether I generally consider their work good or poor, whether I am fascinated, bored, repelled, awestruck or confused.
I started this process at the end of April and yesterday (July 4th) we had CEWT #1. There were a few rough edges, and I learnt a thing or two, and I already know some things I would change if and when we have another, but there’ll more on that later. For now, here’s that aggregated advice for anyone else thinking of trying it …
We started small: in a kitchen with only a few people.
I have no idea how many interested people you know, but it is smart to keep it either very small to start with, which you can organise by yourself. Or make it a bit bigger, but then you should have some help.
I’d thought about doing this for about 12 months before our first one, and it was only when I started to talk to the others about the idea that I found they had similar thoughts and things started to move.
My experience is that you need about 10 people to have good discussions in LAWST style. 7-8 people could be okay, although I don’t think you need facilitation with such a small group. You also have the risk that if 1 or 2 do not show up, your group becomes even smaller.
We have limited it to a maximum of around 25 people. As we are always looking to improve, this all might be subject to change in the near future.
I had assumed [the sense that in a peer conference everyone is granted the status of everyone else’s peer] was a central guidance to peer conferences – even if, in practice, it was occasionally hard to see such respect in action. However, I’m no longer certain of this; when I’ve shared my position with other peer conference organisers, it has been (generally) either alien or less important. I think this gets hard with >8 people, and is pretty impossible with >15. A 25-person room will naturally form groups, gurus, acolytes and pariahs – so it’s ludicrous of me to expect larger peer conferences to work this way.
Personally, I think the max size for any peer group is rather under 20.
We have a very simple approach to application and invitation – if someone asks if they can come, then they can. Done. I tell people that there’s a cutoff, what the cutoff is, and that people who apply when numbers are under the cutoff can come, and people who are later can’t come.
Currently, I ask prior participants to set the theme and the date, so they know before anyone else. This gives them precedence, but if they don’t take the opportunity, they don’t get to go.
Wrong people: who am I to judge? However, if someone applies out of the blue, I’ll talk with them so that they can judge if they’re the right person. Usually their judgement is sound.
If someone’s interested enough to ask to come and to give up their time to be part of it, then they’re in – whether they ‘fit’ the group, or not. We have had people who didn’t fit, and sometimes they’ve been wonderful contributors, sometimes they’ve triggered good conversations and interesting realignments. No one has walked out yet. A few participants have complained about others, and I can deal with that as facilitator if something is said early enough. I sometimes find my own comfort challenged – but I don’t think it’s my role to exclude someone, and I’m sure that the group is muscular enough to chew someone up and spit them out if it absolutely has to.
We are thinking of adding the possibility to choose one speaker chosen by the participants.
All organisers can introduce one (sometimes two) others to the peer conference. We often try to invite somebody outside of the testing circle to add some other views to our conferences.
If you are inviting people, then invite people you think will have something interesting to say on the topic rather than people you know or feel you need to invite out of loyalty – remember it’s a firstly a learning opportunity not a social gathering.
Even if you don’t know someone well but want to invite them, don’t be afraid to reach out and ask them – most people like to be invited to these things.
I find that the more diverse the group, the more it offers guarded respect to each individual: our two-people-with-less-than-two-years-experience thing helps with the diversity.
The Organising Team
We are organized as a small core group with assigned roles – which rotate per event – to some of us to organize the peer conference.
A small team will help give the idea some momentum, generate more interesting ideas and share the effort of creating the event.
Play to people’s strengths – we are all very different with unique skills and personalities, but we each bring something to the table.
If you have a team then agree roles (we change roles each time) to ensure things get done. Generally you will need:
- 1 x Content Owner – responsible for describing the theme, reviewing and feedback on abstracts, ensuring all attendees have an abstract.
- 1 x Facilitator – responsible for managing the flow of the discussions on the day (doesn’t need to speak)
- 1-2 x Organisers – responsible for logistics (venue arrangements, ensuring costs are covered either by sponsorship or attendees, providing travel and hotel information, keeping in touch with attendees etc.).
Choose relevant and open topics that encourage a wider range of views and discussions.
Find a good venue.
Food is important – quality grub adds to the vibe.
All participants are obliged to send in a proposal for a small presentation (organisers too).
Asking for abstracts (and receiving them) helps to focus people’s minds ahead of the day.
Chase people for abstracts, review and feedback on the abstracts. In my opinion, if you don’t have abstracts then some attendees will forget to prepare and attempt to wing-it resulting in less interesting talks and discussions. However that does depend upon who the attendees are.
Don’t underestimate the effort required to invite people or encourage people to attend (if you have an open attendance). You will have people who drop out in the lead up to the event so be prepared.
Plan ahead, we have started planning 3-4 months ahead to give people time to commit and provide abstracts. When you invite or accept people to attend, ensure they know the outline plan with milestones such as confirming attendance, when initial and final abstracts are due etc.
Keep regular contact with those who are attending to keep them informed of plans, reminders of upcoming milestones, hotel and travel arrangements etc.
Logistics: On the Day
If you can, find someone to do the distracting mid-workshop logistics (i.e. who’s eating what, taking calls from late people).
Trying to get through all of the talks works well – fast paced and high energy.
Not worrying about getting through all the talks works well too – slower and deeper.
Breaks: as long as possible without losing momentum and direction. Proper, multithreaded conversation happens in the breaks. The “talks” are a primer for the discussions, the discussions a primer for conversations – and connections and ideas grow from those conversations.
Set-up: everyone should be able to see everyone else’s face, all the time. Other than that, don’t be precious about room layout, drinks, stationery, power supplies, matching tables or any other fripperies. Indeed, the more informal, the better. Help participants to feel comfortable, not coddled, and certainly not privileged.
Visuals: I strongly discourage slides, and encourage flip charts. They’re more immediate, more interactive, and less goes wrong. I prefer flipcharts to whiteboards, as they’re more permanent and one can flip back.
Dot voting lean coffee style gets everyone involved.
Keep presentations nice and short; 15 minutes max.
Ordering: the room gets to decide what goes early (the facilitator gets a deciding vote) – so topics at the end usually get less time. This can make them more focussed, and the speaker will often be able to tune what they have so that it suits the attention of the room.
We don’t have a content owner deciding what gets attention or priority, we don’t have a scribe making public notes, we don’t have a mission. We all agree at the outset to be facilitated, which helps – but we don’t necessarily decide what ‘facilitation’ is.
The relatively-fast turnover of topics helps, a lot.
Ask the room to accept you as someone who will regulate the ebb and flow. Don’t direct (or dictate) the content.
Accept that, as facilitator, you’re not really at the workshop, and give the primary part of your attention to emotions of the people in the room, not to what is being said.
Monitoring people’s energy and staying fluid with structure and content helps keep things moving.
When I’m facilitating, I try to do the job with as light a touch as possible – basically I keep a queue, keep my eye on time, and try to help the group stay within the discipline of conversing in a way that lets everyone talk, and everyone listen. Even that, however, requires my complete attention on the room – which means I don’t make many notes for myself or contribute much to the conversation.
The facilitator is not a peer. The participants give the facilitator their attention, and their permission to stop and start them, in pursuit of a greater goal then their own individual airtime. The facilitator accepts their temporary status, and returns the favour by serving the group and putting his or her own needs aside.
Name cards can help your own flow.
Getting everyone’s attention focussed from chat to the group: There are clutch of approaches. Most work, most use sound or visual cues. I pick up whatever (physical) sound effect I’ve not used recently. Singing bowls, thundersticks, jingle toys. It gets to a point where, when everyone’s concentrating, one has only to pick the thing up to make people switch focus. My favourite was the vuvuzela – a disgustingly loud football horn. I don’t remember blowing it at all (except to try it out).
For each new topic, I try to remember to announce the topic and speaker, ask how much time they want to talk, support them no more than they want, and to ask the room to thank them at the end.
As someone starts their topic, I split the audio recording and also write down the start time, the time the speaker’s asked me to give them, and the time we’ve all agreed to spend on the topic. I write those as absolutes, not relatives, because calculation takes your attention – (ie 10:03:15, 10:13, 10:33). My laptop clock is always in view.
I record audio, and this also keeps track of elapsed relative time (i.e. 0:17:30 since the topic started).
I keep track of the timing info and the current queue on the same topic card that I’ve pulled off the wall – the card that started with a topic title and ended up covered in sticky dots. Keeping track of the question stack/queue is easy – it’s a list, sometimes with indents and squiggles. If sub-topics are spawning more sub-topics, do ask the room if they want to go deep or wide.
Allow the clock to rule, allow the room to override the clock. Don’t worry about going short. The room will need to regularly be reminded of the time available as the stack builds up and time burns down.
Every few questions, I’ll tell the room who the next 2-4 people on the stack. If we’re in open discussion, and I feel the room needs to move on, I’ll catch the eye of whoever is speaking, breathe in as they finish a point, and indicate the next question by pointing to someone and saying their name.
Don’t fear dropping a person from the queue – it’s your job. But don’t drop them slyly, either.
I bite my tongue (metaphorically, mostly) to stop (my) witty interjections; they’re not usually that great, and it’s an abuse of the role the room has allowed me to take. For the same reason, I don’t usually ask many questions – but I don’t absolutely exclude myself, either.
If, as time runs out on a topic, you give participants the chance to pull their questions or comments to let other questions be asked, they might just do it.
As a facilitator, the people who give me problems are those who assume their contribution is more important than the person who currently has the room’s attention, the people with one thing to say and a big personal stake in having it heard, and people who stop listening after someone uses a word that is hot (or dull) for them.
I’m sometimes a problem if I get involved, and I’m lucky that people help me rein myself in if I get out of hand. But problems are few and often easy to deal with if one has a feel for the toler
ance and firmness that suits the mood of the room (the whole group, not just the loud participants).
If everyone speaks at once, I need to decide when and how and whether to stop them – and if people only speak when their feel they have permission to speak, I’ve done it all wrong and need to shake up the room. Stay between these extremes, let people (including yourself) be human, aim for fine chat, and you’ll have done a job that anyone should be satisfied with.
I find that expression and body position will tell you whether someone has a new point or a follow-on (and if not, just ask), so I think that k-cards in something with <20 people are a constraining gadget.
I don’t tend to give much leeway to an extended back-and-forth between speaker and a single interlocutor.
Discourage bad behaviour more than the person who is behaving badly: Firmly and clearly block people who are being bullies, then swiftly forgive them and allow them a chance to redeem themselves in the eyes of their peers.
See for general ideas: Paul Holland on facilitation.
Success or failure (pick your own definition) is mostly down to the group, not the facilitator – but you are, as Jerry Weinberg might say, responsible for your reactions to the group.