Let’s Get Physical

After more than three years of remote facilitation using video conferencing and Mural or Miro, I had almost forgotten how good it feels to be physically present with people.

  • To listen to and sense the vibe in the room
  • To greet each other with a hearty handshake
  • To speak with one another face to face
  • To gaze out into a room full of faces without needing video to be on
  • To replace emojis with real high fives and eyewinks

Almost forgotten that is, until last week when I facilitated an in-person Big Room Planning (BRP) event. Also known as Obeya or PI (Program Increment) Planning.

In two words, it was “exhilarating” and “glorious”!

The two-day event was a culmination of weeks of preparation and socialization.

Preparations included helping participants define, refine, and align their product backlogs representing the work they planned to accomplish at a high level over the next two to three quarters.

Continuous education and socialization of what a BRP is and its benefits was key as this was a new practice and a different way of planning for the majority of participants. Common reactions to the practice include:

  • 2 days of planning is overkill.”
  • We already have detailed plans in place for the entire year.”
  • The teams are heads-down delivering. We don’t have time to do this.”

The “lack of time” is a common complaint. However, I would assert that there is “no lack of time”. It’s all about how they choose to prioritize the time they do have. What’s important gets priority.

Is two days every quarter really overkill? Let’s do the math:

2 days / quarter = 3.3% of people’s work time

How much time would you say you spend “planning” in silos and asynchronously? Add to that how much productivity in days is lost due to “re-planning” what you’ve already delivered when assumptions and dependencies change. I would hazard to guess the total time spent per quarter by people is much more than 3.3%.

Looking beyond the challenge of time, what would it take to try a different way of planning? How about increased alignment, transparency and collaboration across all stakeholders all at once? Does any of that strike a chord with you? Enough to be willing to try something different?

Energize Me

As a facilitator, one of my responsibilities is to be one energy level higher than the participants. If I’m not visibly curious or excited about the topic, why would I expect participants to be any different? I do this by reading the room and throwing in an energizer activity when the energy in the room seems to be low. In the virtual world, it’s difficult to read the room, especially when cameras are off. Not so difficult when we’re all together in the same physical room. Are you noticing eyes glazing over and engagement waning? If so, time for an energizer.

I love energizers. Running energizers on a Miro board can be fun. But are one-dimensional when compared to in-person energizers. Being physically present with others while participating in an energizer is a feast for all your senses.

A return to low tech

As we started to prepare the content and facilitation aids for the BRP, I began to worry about the technology in the room.

  • What if I can’t connect my laptop to the projectors?
  • What if the room monitors are not big enough or spread out enough to effectively present our PowerPoint slides?
  • How accessible will any BRP e-artifacts be to participants?

And then I thought, why not be a Luddite and use low tech content and aids to eliminate any risk of high tech glitches?

  • Flip charts
  • White boards
  • Real Post-Its
  • Index cards
  • Dry erase markers
  • Sharpies
  • Real dots
  • Painter’s masking tape

As we started to manually sketch our facilitation flip chart posters and tape up our physical master plan, team, program and ROAM boards I felt a level of joy, creativity and freedom that I hadn’t felt for years. We had broken out of our high tech confines. How liberating!

Gather round the board

In Miro or Mural if I as a facilitator, wish all participants to look at what I’m are looking at, all I need to do is to click on an option to “bring” or “summon” everyone to me. Yet, even when I do that, I’m never quite sure whether I have their full attention or they’ve wandered off again.

The great thing about an in-person event is one’s ability to simply get up and walk up to take a closet look at what everyone else is focusing on. As I facilitator, I can invite those who are sitting at the back of the room to come up to the board so they can better see what I’m talking about. And, there’s less chance of them taking virtual side trips as they saunter up to the board.

The best part of this is when participants start spontaneously walking up to the board to draw a picture or move a card while others slowly get up and join them. I love it when chairs empty and everyone is around a board having animated conversations.

Mike me up

Although our 2-day BRP was intended to be our first post-pandemic fully in-person event, we inevitably had to accommodate for a minority of remote participants. We did our best by adopting a “remote first” mindset during our preparations and facilitation. This included:

  • A dedicated co-facilitator to support the needs of remote participants including integrating their comments, questions, and answers into the flow of the event
  • A mobile laptop webcam used to zoom in on specific flip charts or physical boards so remote participants could follow along
  • Posting pictures of the physical artifacts for remote participants to access virtually

Alas, one thing we didn’t account for was the insufficient volume for remote participants of what was being said in the room. Thanks to the great AV tech support at our disposal, I as the prime facilitator, was quickly miked up and hand-held microphones were passed around whenever someone else was ready to speak.

This experience highlighted how much more difficult it can be to run an effective hybrid event as opposed to a fully in-person or fully virtual event.

Execs in the Room

A critical success factor for any BRP is the clear and present messaging and support from leadership. We were pleased when not just one but three senior executives showed up in-person to be with the team.

  • They re-iterated the importance and benefits of taking the time to learn about the BRP practice and to plan together at the same time.
  • They listened attentively to all the planning share-backs
  • They asked insightful questions
  • They offered thoughtful suggestions
  • They witnessed and acknowledged a highly transparent and honest confidence vote

Their willingness to take time out and be with participants to honour their work and outcomes during the event was a testament to the value they placed on not only the BRP practice itself but also on in-person interactions.

Campfire storytelling

Perhaps the most compelling reason for me of getting physical again was the opportunity for unadulterated storytelling at all levels. Here’s a sample of the stories that were told at our BRP event

  • The story behind why it’s hard to believe a skateboard could one day grow up to become a car
  • The story behind why it’s easier to believe a skateboard could turn into a bicycle
  • The story behind how Leonardo Da Vinci painted his Mona Lisa
  • The story of how the BRP practice will become the new way of working at scale
  • The story of one business unit who can’t wait and is looking forward to participating in our next BRP event
  • The story of how SpaceX staff cheered the explosion of one of its rockets 4 minutes after it was launched
  • The story of how seeing a mess of cables in a data centre did more to call a CEO to action than all the previous boardroom presentations combined

I love a good story. Hearing those stories in person added a depth that touched me deeper than any virtual story could.

Lessons Learned

Here are some of the key lessons we learned from this BRP event.

  1. Beware of insufficient socialization at the leadership level that may translate to resistance
  2. All in-person participants will provide the best overall experience
  3. If a hybrid event, adopt a “Remote First” mindset
  4. No guarantees on when a particular topic will require a remote participant to be present and available to engage
  5. Arrange the room to bring in-person participants as close to facilitator and to each other as possible
  6. Bring fresh dry-erase markers 😊

Like a good story, we may forget the details of everything that happened during the BRP event. But, we won’t forget how participating in the event made us feel.

I, for one felt joy, happiness, and relief. Can’t wait for the next one so that we can improve based on what we learned.

BRP practice details inspired by a series of Scaled Planning articles by Ole Jepsen on InfoQ.com

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