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Iterate to Accumulate (Hiccupps)

On July 19, 2016, in Syndicated, by Association for Software Testing
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I’m very interested in continual improvement and I experiment to achieve it. This applies to most aspects of my work and life and to the Cambridge Exploratory Workshop on Testing (CEWT) that I founded and now run with Chris George.

After CEWT #1 I solicited opinions, comments and suggestions from the participants and acted on many of them for CEWT #2.

In CEWT #2, in order to provide more opportunity for feedback, we deliberately scheduled some time for reflection on the content, the format and any other aspect of the workshop in the workshop itself. We used a rough-and-ready Stop, Start, Continue format and here’s the results, aggregated and slightly edited for consistency:

Start

  • Speaker to present “seed” questions
  • Closing session (Identify common threads, topics; Share our findings more widely)
  • More opposing views (Perhaps set up opposition by inviting talks? Use thinking hats?)
  • Focused practical workshop (small huddles)

Stop

  • 10 talks too many?
  • Whole day event (About an hour or two too long; Make it half a day)
  • Running CEWT on a Sunday
  • Earlyish start
  • Voting for talks (perhaps group familiar ones?)
  • Don’t make [everyone] present
  • Prep for different length talks

Continue

  • CEWT 🙂
  • Loved it!
  • Great Venue
  • Good location
  • Lunch, logistics
  • One whole day worked well
  • Varied talks
  • Keep to 10 min talks
  • Short talks & long discussions are good
  • This amount of people
  • Informal, local, open
  • Topic discussions
  • Everyone got a chance to speak
  • Cards for facilitation
  • Flexible agenda
  • Ideas being the priority

Other

  • Energy seemed to drop during the day

Me and Chris have now started planning CEWT #3 and so we reviewed the retrospective comments and discussed changes we might make, balanced against our own desires (which, we find, differ in places) and the remit for CEWT itself, which is:

  • Cambridge: the local tester community; participants have been to recent meetups.
  • Exploratory: beyond the topic there’s no agenda; bring on the ideas.
  • Workshop: not lectures but discussion; not leaders but peers; not handouts but arms open.
  • Testing: and anything relevant to it.

We first discussed the reported decrease in energy levels towards the end of the day during CEWT #2. We’d felt it too. We considered several options, including reducing the length. But we decided for now to keep to a whole day.

We like that length for several reasons, including: it allows conversation to go deep and broad; it allows time for reflection; it allows time for all to participate; it contributes to the distinction between CEWT and local meetups.

So if we’re keeping the same length, what else could we try changing to keep energy levels up? The CEWT #2 feedback suggested a couple of directions:

  • stop: 10 talks too many; Don’t make [everyone] present
  • start: More opposing views; Focused practical workshops

We are personally interested in switching to some kind of group activity inside the workshop, maybe even ad hoc lightning talks, so we’re going do something in that direction. We also – after much deliberation – decided to reduce the number of talks and to inject more potential views by increasing the number of participants to 12.

CEWT #1 had eight participants, CEWT #2 had 10. We felt that the social dynamic at those events was good. We are wary of growing to a point where anyone doesn’t get a chance to speak on any topic they feel strongly about or that they have something interesting to contribute to. We will retain cards to facilitate discussion but we know from our own experience, and research amongst other peer workshop groups, that we need to be careful here.

At the two CEWTs to date all participants have presented. Personally I like that aspect of it; it feels inclusive, participatory, about peers sharing. But we are aware that asking people to stand up and talk is a deterrent to some and part of what we’re about is encouraging local testers. Participation in a discussion might be an easier next step from meetups than speaking, even in a safe environment like CEWT. So we’re going to try having only some participants present talks.

But we also don’t want to stop providing an opportunity for people who have something to say and would like to practice presenting in front of an interested, motivated, friendly audience. One of the CEWT #2 participants, Claire, blogged on just that point:

I was asked if I wanted to attend CEWT2. I knew this would involve doing a presentation which I wasn’t particularly thrilled about, but the topic really had me chomping at the bit to participate. It was an opportunity for me to finally lay some ghosts to rest about a particularly challenging situation I foolishly allowed to affect me to the extent I thought I was a rubbish tester. I deleted my previous blog and twitter as I no longer had any enthusiasm about testing and wasn’t even sure it was a path I wanted to continue down. So, despite being nervous at the thought of presenting I was excited to be in a position to elicit the thoughts from other testers about my experience.

The reactions, questions and suggestions have healed that last little hole in my testing soul. It was a great experience to be in a positive environment amongst other testers, all with different skills and experiences, who I don’t really know, all coming together to talk about testing.

Chris and me talked a lot about how to implement the desire to have fewer talks. Some possibilities we covered:

  • invite only a select set of participants to speak
  • ask for pre-submission of papers and choose a set of them 
  • ask everyone to prepare and use voting on the day to decide who speaks
  • ask people when they sign up whether they want to speak

I have some strong opinions here, opinions that I will take a good deal of persuading to change:

  • I don’t want CEWT to turn into a conference.
  • I don’t want CEWT to turn into a bureaucracy.
  • I don’t want anyone to prepare and not get the opportunity to present.

In CEWT #2 we used dot voting to order the talks and suggested that people be prepared to talk for longer (if their talk was voted early) or shorter (if late). As it happened, we decided on the day to change the schedule to let everyone speak for the same length of time but the two-length talk idea wasn’t popular, as the stop “Prep for different length talks” feedback notes.

So this time we’re going to try asking people whether they want to present or not, expecting that some will not and we’ll have a transparent strategy for limiting the number in any case. (Perhaps simply an ordered list of presenters and reserve presenters, as we do for participants.) We’ll have a quota of presenters in mind but we haven’t finalised that quite yet; not until we’ve thought some more about the format of the day.

With some presenters and some non-presenters, we’re concerned that we don’t encourage or create a kind of two-level event with some people (perceived as) active and some passive. You’ll notice I haven’t referred to attendees in this post; we are about peers, about participation, and we want participants. Part of the CEWT #3 experiment will be to see how that goes on the day.

Clearly the changes we’ve chosen to make are not the only possible way to accommodate the feedback we received. But we have, consciously, chosen to make some changes. Our commitment here is to continually look to improve the experience and outcomes from the CEWTs (for the participants, the wider community and ourselves) and we believe that openness, experimentation, feedback and evaluation is a healthy way to do that.

Let’s see what happens!
Image: https://flic.kr/p/qvpt1p

 

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