I was speaking to some fellow Agilists at an event recently about an Agile training course that I do that can accommodate up to 200 people at a time and they were pretty skeptical that it could be done. Later, I realized my path to creating the course might make an interesting story as well as be a good illustration of the power of self-organized teams. This is that story.
Marvin Toll Creates the First Bridge to Large Scale Training
At some point before the first Agile and Beyond conference, which was held in March of 2010, I was contacted by Marvin Toll and asked to present at the conference. He wanted to know which topics I could present on and I sent him my list.
Marvin chose "Hands on Agile" which had a title and an abstract, but no content. I just had an idea for a small hands-on workshop that might help people better understand what Agile is all about. I agreed to do it and took the first of many serendipitous steps.
You Want Me to Do This for How Many People?!
Luckily I was able to drawn on some material that I had already created for various Agile-related presentations. But then the second unexpected thing happened. One of the conference organizers sent me an e-mail letting me know that I should expect upwards of 100 people to attend my session and possibly many more. I had forgotten to let them know that I was planning on an intimate workshop of about 20 people. Now what was I going to do? I never would have set out to do a hands-on session for more than 20 people, let alone 100 or more!
I realized that all of the hands-on activities were structured around co-located whole teams. Everybody would be split up into teams with one team per table. Assuming that the instructions were easy to follow, each team would work together to figure out and perform the exercise.
I also realized that the question was, did I really believe in self-organized teams or not? Was it possible for just one person to keep over 100 people on track doing self-directed exercises? In the end I either believed in Agile or I didn't and if it worked out it would be another good example of how self-organization works and if it didn't I would learn some important lessons.
The Big Day Arrives
The day of the event I felt as prepared as I could be, but I really didn't know what to expect. Just before the session was about to begin I discovered that the sample user stories that I had so carefully prepared as handouts for each team were missing and I didn't have time to create new ones. And then I discovered that the easels and stickies for each table weren't set up for each table as I had requested and weren't even in the room! I was starting to get knots in my stomach. What would I do now?
I found one of the organizers and asked about my materials. Ten minutes later, all of the easels and stickies were at the front of the room and it was time to start. Approximately 150 people were all staring at me expectantly in 17 teams of 9. Necessity really is the mother of invention. After going through the preliminaries, which included explaining the role of a Scrum Master and having the room form into cross-function teams, two ideas came to me. First, I realized that I had 17 Scrum Masters that had materialized as a result of self-organization. I had them come up and get all of the needed materials for their teams and it looked like I had always meant to do that.
The second idea turned out to be one of the key reasons that the training is so much fun. Rather than use the pre-created user stories that I no longer had, I had each team pick a software project on their own. The only requirement was that it be something that the whole team thought would be fun and had nothing to do with anything they were currently working on. Two examples of projects: an on-line recipe creation website and a death ray. Apparently, one of the teams was made up of military contractors.
The Rest of the Story
After a successful debut, I've since repeated it at Agile and Beyond 2011 and will be doing it again at Agile and Beyond 2012 in March. Because it went so smoothly the first time with 150 people, I'm confident it will scale up to at least 200 people with a single instructor. I plan to test that theory in the near future. I also turned it into a full day training course which was offered all over the US last year. A brand new full day version, called Agile Whole Team Training is now available through Valtivity via public courses starting in Boston on March 20th and is also available privately on site or off site.