I previously wrote about an attempt to run a distributed Lean Coffee retrospective using Google Hangouts and a Sticky note app by Symphonical. Although the initial attempt worked well, subsequent retrospectives suffered from the ten person limit of Hangouts and various network issues. I still wanted to experiment so when the chance to work with fellow Agilistas at ICF to host an Agile Q&A, I decided to take another shot.
Lean Coffee is really for intimate gatherings
The Q&A session was more inspired by Lean Coffee than an attempt to scale it. We wanted questions to come from the audience and to be voted on. The eight minute per question seemed to be as good a starting point for time boxing the discussion. The challenge came from needing to support questions from over a hundred potential participants and to be able to run the session within a one hour limit. Based on the prior experience we decided to collect and vote on questions before the session so we could use the audience’s time wisely by not in fiddling with technology.
Setting up Web Tools
I also wanted to avoid cost and any requirement to install any additional software on corporate laptops. I came up with a combination of Zapier and Google Docs. Zapier is a service that allows integration of other web services to form simple automated workflows.
To collect questions I used a Zap that took incoming emails and transformed them into rows on a Questions sheet of a Google Doc Spreadsheet. The Zap mapped the sender and the subject line containing the question, into columns on the spreadsheet. Having the sender’s name was useful during the session to check in with them and make sure the question was adequately addressed. Zap creates an email account which can be distributed to participants as described below.
I created a second Zap that would do pretty much the same for incoming votes. The subject line contained the questions numbers that would be parsed out and counted in a second Votes sheet of the spreadsheet.
Apart from creating an additional formula for counting votes that was it. We followed the sequence below starting about a week before the session.
Step 1: Float
Everybody floats their questions by sending an e-mail with the question in the Subject to the address created by Zapier.
e.g. Subject: What is the answer to life, the universe and everything?
Tip: Be clear in communications that the body will be ignored in case some people try to send multiple questions in the body instead of multiple emails.
We allowed four days for people to submit questions before pausing the Zap.We numbered the questions and make sure there are no duplicates. If the questions covered similar ground we merged them. We also shared the spreadsheet so people could see what was going on and decide if the topics interested them enough to attend.
Step 2: Vote
The second voting Zap was made live. Each person got three votes. The votes were cast by sending an email to the same Zap address, with the three question numbers in the subject line.
e.g. Subject: 2 4 7
This would be a vote for questions that end up being numbered 2 4 and 7.
Step 3: Total
The day before the session, voting was shut down. After applying the formula to total the votes, the questions were sorted. Having this preview enabled those of us running the session to put some basic ideas together.
Step 4: Throat
During the session, each of these questions was discussed for eight minutes. I timed using a simple phone app. When we think the discussion had reached a good end-point we would ask the submitter if we had answered the question. If the discussion seems to be going beyond 8 minutes we asked to see if the submitter wanted the discussion to continue. If so then we extended but only for half the time – four minutes, two minutes, one minute then stop.
Tip: Place the word “Done” next to the completed question so late comers would know which question is being discussed.
It felt like a live Podcast
We then repeated Step 4 for as long as there was time. Most questions seemed to be covered by the first period. We also had chat windows and a screen sharing solution running. The chat window enabled others to add commentary or to join the conversation with their experiences. The technology was simple and solid. The answers were a jumping off point for the submitter’s learning. Offering suggested books and other resources and even personal consultation will hopefully start to build a grass roots community.