Workshops are used within IT organizations for a range of purposes, from requirements gathering to purely educational efforts. Traditional workshops are often difficult to organize and manage, although an agile approach can easily rectify this problem.

My recent experiences should provide some

insights into improving workshops within your organization, insights which you can extend to improve your internal software development process.

I recently attended the Growing Agile Practices workshop sponsored by the Scrum Toronto group. The goal of the workshop is to discuss how to introduce agile software development techniques into organizations. Twenty-seven people, including myself, attended the six-hour session facilitated free-of-charge by Larry Petersen, a founder of the Open Space Institute of Canada.

Open Space is a simple workshop technique that fosters communication within a diverse group. It’s based on two fundamentals, four philosophies and one law. The fundamentals are the passion to engage people and the responsibility to ensure something gets done. The philosophies are that whoever comes are the right people, whenever it starts is the right time, whatever happens is the only thing that could have, and when it’s over, it’s over. Finally, the law of two feet says only you can determine where you can learn and contribute the most effectively. Sound a little flaky? Open your mind then because it’s incredibly effective.

Participants were asked to suggest a discussion topic for the workshop. People came to the centre of the circle and offered topics such as “”How much documentation do we really need”” or “”How can we get developers to test more.”” It was written on a piece of paper, then taped to the wall.

The scheduling effort was simple: We started with four designated discussion locations and three time slots, but introduced a fifth location to accommodate all the discussions. The location/time combinations were written on Post-it notes, which were grabbed by a topic owner and put on their topic so everyone knew when and where to go.

People then attended the conversations they were interested in. The topic owner was responsible for recording the findings of the discussion and posting it on a Wiki page, an online discussion forum. In this case, it was posted to, so everyone could have access to the material.

What lessons can we learn from this experience? First, simple techniques work. It worked for our small group and I’ve seen this work at a multi-day event with several hundred participants. Second, simple technologies work. We used paper and tape to run the workshop and a Wiki to permanently document the results. Third, simplicity is inclusive. Everyone was actively involved in the discussions, unlike many traditional workshops I’ve attended, and felt as if they truly had ownership over both the process and the results.

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