How to Get Hired as a Scrum Master

Photo by stevengosch

Photo by stevengosch

I’ve blogged about how to prepare for the Scrum Master interview (see parts 1, 2, and 3) to help you stand out as a candidate. This morning I had the opportunity to do a Q&A with folks attending a Professional Scrum Foundations course, and the question about how to get that first agile job came up.

It’s a common question.

Getting an agile certification alone doesn’t get you the Scrum Master interview—having a certification is table stakes in most organizations. Networking at agile meetups is great for continued learning and meeting new people. Networking doesn’t give you the experience or skills for the job. Companies want to hire people who can help them get better results, and your goal as a candidate is to show that you have the capabilities to do that. That starts with you practicing agile where you are and how you can so you have experience to share on your resume and in interviews.

Hear my thoughts on getting started using agile to get hired as a Scrum Master in this video:

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Presentations from #MusicCityAgile & #MusicCityCode

This week I was fortunate to participate in Music City Tech conference in Nashville, TN. The event encompasses 3 conferences in 1, with sessions on code, data, and agile topics.

Yesterday I spoke on the lunch panel about People, and the questions from the audience were excellent. I enjoyed hearing from the other panelists and sharing my thoughts with the group. Today I presented 2 topics, and the slides for each are available below:

Talking and Not Talking—Finding Balance as a Coach

Oops, We Inflicted DevOps on our Business

Thank you to everyone who came to my sessions. The interaction was fantastic, and I always learn from the discussions myself. I’d love to hear how you apply learnings from the sessions!

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

How to Prepare for a Scrum Master Interview, Part 3 – All about You

Photo by Michael Li

Photo by Michael Li

In part 1, I wrote about how to explain the Scrum framework and demonstrate your knowledge. Part 2 covered highlighting your real-world Agile experience and how you’ve helped teams improve. This post is about sharing your you-ness.

Your resume probably shows your past jobs and when you first became a Scrum Master. However, it’s likely less clear about why you’re interested in being a Scrum Master and what makes you uniquely qualified for the role.

Your Agile Origin Story

Fans of comic books and superhero movies will recognize an origin story as the backstory that informs the identity and motivations of heroes and villains. It is the narrative of how they came to be the hero or villain that they are.

I met someone recently at a party who had been told by a friend to look into becoming a Scrum Master. As we talked, I learned that this person is currently in an accounting position and good at math. His friend thought he’d be a good Scrum Master because he could create accurate burndown charts and calculate the team’s velocity. And then I learned that he doesn’t like socializing much at work. As I described more about the Scrum Master as the team’s coach, he decided that it might not be such a good role for him after all.

Think back to how you first learned about agile and when you started trying Scrum. What stands out in those memories? As you continue remembering your agile journey, there is something about being a Scrum Master that you love—what is it? Each one of us has a different path when in becoming a Scrum Master—different backgrounds, education, roles, and experiences. Those differences shape who we are.

Noticing the patterns or themes in positive past experiences may highlight the aspects of agile that are most important to you. Whether I was a project manager or agile PM or Scrum Master, I loved going into messy or chaotic situations and finding better ways of delivering software to customers by working with both technical and business people. That was my one-liner in interviews. How I found better ways of delivering software by working with people evolved over time. What’s your one-liner of what you love to do?

Using Your Strengths

As a Scrum Master, you bring certain strengths and passions to the role that set you apart. To determine your strengths, you can take an assessment like StrengthsFinder or ask coworkers what they think your strengths are. You might think about the compliments you’ve received in the past or situations where you excelled. There are things others struggle with that you find easy to do.

When you’re doing work you care about and using your strengths, you work harder and better. When you look at your past, what impact did you have on the individuals you worked with? What awesomeness did you inspire? How are you connected to those people, and what are they doing now? Talking about the impact you’ve had on real people and relationships you’ve grown gives confidence in your abilities. And sharing how you helped others become better feels good.

Rock the Scrum Master Interview

This the last post in a 3-part series on how to prepare for a Scrum Master interview. These posts will help you be more confident and clear in explaining the Scrum framework, describing your agile experience, and showcasing your personal agile journey and strengths. Interviewers ask a variety of questions and look for different skills based on their organization’s needs. Preparation as a candidate will give you a better sense of what you are looking for in an opportunity. Good luck on your interviews, and remember they are a two-way process so you can (and should) ask questions too.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

How to Prepare for a Scrum Master Interview, Part 2 – Agile Experience

Photo by Ted Sali

Photo by Ted Sali

In part 1, I wrote about how to explain the Scrum framework and demonstrate your knowledge. As a friend of mine mentioned after reading part 1, “Describing improvements that happened on your ‘watch’ as a SM is very helpful in interviews. Just reiterating what the Scrum Guide says doesn't really help the interviewer understand how you can drive improvement.” My hope is that the preparation from part 1 will help you stand out as a candidate and—more importantly—allow you and the interviewer to spend more time delving into your experience.

This post is about highlighting your real-world Agile experience and how you’ve helped teams improve. Storytelling is a key skill here.

Managers are generally looking to hire Scrum Masters for one of two reasons: (1) they have a new team that they’d like to get started with Scrum or (2) they have an existing Scrum team that could use help improving their agility. They want to hear how your previous work experience may relate to their current needs. Have a few examples of how you’ve worked in these scenarios to help teams collaborate more, deliver better results, and build trust in their organizations and with customers. Scrum Masters are often described as servant leaders, and we give a lot of credit to our teams for their hard work in delivering products and embracing change. In an interview, you’ll want to be clear about your role in coaching a team to improve. Below are some thoughts on how to do that based on my early agile experiences.

You applied practices from Scrum or other agile frameworks

Many, many years ago I tried introducing Scrum in a digital agency environment. My approach had been to explain Scrum to the group and have a conversation about how it might work for us. Given the number of client projects we were juggling at any one time and changes that could pop up any moment, we ultimately agreed that it wasn’t a good fit for our needs. However, five people did adopt daily standups as a practice, and I applied lean thinking as I tried to limit the amount of work in progress across our developers, focused on work completion and reducing handoffs, and had conversations to identify root causes of issues and determine how to prevent similar issues in the future. I also helped make our release process visible to enable daily deployments to production—with only one QA tester and a lack of automated tests. Getting that process to be stable and run like clockwork was a testament to what transparency can accomplish. And I would wish that process on precisely no one—automate processes and tests more than we did!

With my experience from the above organization, I could speak to giving a group the opportunity to opt-in (or not) to adopting Scrum. An interviewer and I could talk about how Scrum might not always be the best fit and how to introduce agile/lean thinking and specific practices to improve delivery. The keys here are speaking to what I did (managing work for flow, facilitating conversations, introducing new practices for consideration) that led to better results (significantly increased deployment frequency while reducing defects, improved teamwork and their process ownership).

You worked with a new team that adopted Scrum

In another organization, a new team had been formed and gone through initial agile training just before I was brought in as Scrum Master. In the first sprint, the development team had little interaction with their Product Owner who was remote. But they were able to successfully deliver a working product and had a great sprint review with lively conversation amongst key stakeholders about deploying the product and changing business processes to support its immediate usage and resolve current issues. I’d also observed that the team members had some difficulties working together; I invited a colleague to facilitate a DISC workshop for the team to raise our awareness of our behavior styles so we could talk about how we would handle conflict as a team. Their working agreements were strengthened by that workshop. The team’s manager felt pressure to make sure the team delivered and didn’t know what to do to help, and we had one-on-one conversations about it. And when the team struggled to deliver in its second sprint, stakeholders panicked and wanted to know what happened—that sprint review was rougher than the first, as you can imagine. I facilitated a retrospective for the team to identify improvements within their control and requests for management to help them.

Based on this experience, I could speak to the daily observations and conversations I’d have as a Scrum Master to support a team in their early stages of using Scrum. An interviewer and I could talk about Tuckman’s model of group development and how the DISC workshop and creating working agreements made Storming easier later. We could delve into the value of sprint reviews or retrospectives and how I’ve facilitated them to encourage open communication and improvements. I could share what I’ve done to help managers and stakeholders understand their roles. This experience also gave me answers around what I would do differently, like be more explicit with managers and stakeholders about what to expect in terms of delivery from a team as they ramped up and ideally be included in the team’s training and project kickoff events. In this case, my role was primarily focused on the development team and secondarily on stakeholders; I would teach and mentor individuals in-the-moment and coach the team as a whole in our Scrum events and workshops. The result was clear visibility into the team’s work and ability to see progress from a business perspective. A newly hired group of people became a cohesive team that delivered, and management learned how to help them.

You coached an existing Scrum team to improve

Between the two experiences I described above, I had the opportunity to become Scrum Master for an existing Scrum team. The development team struggled in completing sprint work, and they felt like priorities changed all the time. Their product backlog contained about 300 items, including many old defects. The team’s Scrum events were routine and relatively short. After shadowing their previous Scrum Master and learning how they worked as a team, I facilitated different retrospective activities to spark new thinking. I added an additional information radiator next to their physical board that got them reflecting on how long it took stories to be completed during the sprint. A bout of production issues disrupted sprints for a period of time, and the team was able to adapt to surprises because they had learned to limit their work in progress. The retrospectives enabled them to improve quality to stabilize the product. To address priority challenges, I wrote out their backlog—all 300 items—onto index cards and posted them in a conference room we used for refinement sessions and sprint planning. Doing that enabled our Product Owner and stakeholders to see duplicates and obsolete requests in the backlog that could be removed; the development team saw defects that could easily be resolved. It became easier to have a single ordered list for the team to work from—it was magical. Team morale improved, and trust grew with the business as work was regularly being delivered each sprint.

Here my role was being a coach to the team on a day-to-day basis and acting as a bridge with our business. In an interview, I could talk about working with a Product Owner who had limited availability or how to handle interruptions during a sprint. We were inadvertently dabbling with Scrumban as a result of applying lean thinking to our Scrum practices. I learned from that team the importance of unit tests and the differences between refactoring and rewriting. My own personal development included teaching lunch and learns and deliberately practicing different facilitation techniques in retrospectives, as well as mentoring a new Scrum Master and eventually working with a second Scrum team. I could share how we used story points to check for agreement amongst team members and velocity for predicting when future backlog items would be completed and not setting “stretch goals” for the sprint—these were the beginnings of getting more predictability. Business stakeholders and team members alike became happier with our delivery and quality improvements.

Results and Your Legacy of People

Highlighting your experience in an interview means showcasing what you did, the results you incited, and who you positively impacted. Keep in mind that speaking to results means going deeper than “we followed Scrum.” Results are about the problems that were solved or outcomes created by applying Agile practices. As an interviewer, I also love hearing about the people you impacted. The team members, managers, and stakeholders that you coached to be more fulfilled in their jobs or to become more skilled or who gained enough confidence to step into new roles.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

How to Prepare for a Scrum Master Interview, Part 1 – Scrum Knowledge

Photo by Joe Penniston

Photo by Joe Penniston

It seems obvious that a Scrum Master should know Scrum. Yet a number of people struggle to explain the framework in an interview setting. Maybe someone else originally trained your teams, it's been a while since you've talked about Scrum end to end, or your company has its own (related) framework it uses. A clear, concise explanation of the framework demonstrates your knowledge, gives a glimpse into your ability to teach, and will help you shine in an interview.

There are 2 resources that I recommend reviewing for preparation. The first is the Scrum Guide. It contains the definition of Scrum. Scrum terminology has changed over the years, and the guide is updated periodically; understanding the changes and using the latest terminology can show a dedication to professional development.

People sometimes bring up that their companies don’t follow Scrum exactly and might use “iterations” instead of “sprints” or refer to “backlog grooming.” Using your company’s terminology on a day-to-day basis makes sense—adopting the language of the land can be a way of building trust. I adjust my language at organizations using their own frameworks and switch back to Scrum in other environments. In an interview setting, we’re talking about how we can potentially work in another company that’s on their agile journey. They might not use the same jargon as your previous organization. It’s prudent to use the language of the Scrum Guide as it’s recognized across the industry.

The second resource I recommend is this video from Lyssa Adkins. In face-to-face interviews, you may be asked or find it helpful to draw Scrum at a whiteboard. Doing so confidently and clearly can make you stand out.

Practice helps here: draw and explain Scrum to anyone who will give you 5 minutes. My walk-through changes slightly based on my audience--a new team member will want to know how they will be working within the team whereas a business stakeholder may want to understand how the product is delivered incrementally and iteratively. I may elaborate or emphasize certain parts of Scrum to better address those "what's in it for me" questions.

You may be thinking at this point that someone could read the Scrum Guide, practice explaining the framework, and have no experience working with agile teams—you’re right. A good interview should not look for only answers that could come from reading books (even if they’re really good ones). And there may be people who are amazing with agile teams who cannot describe Scrum flawlessly.

In interviews, we want to share our knowledge and our experience. Solid knowledge of Scrum seems essential for Scrum Masters. Interviewers also want to know how you’ve applied Scrum. Connect your real-world experience to your foundational understanding of Scrum by telling stories. Describe how you used retrospectives to help a team improve or what you did to support a new Product Owner in their role. Talk about that team member whose skills and confidence grew as a result of your coaching. Speak to how Scrum helped improve delivery and build trust across the organization.

How important is framework knowledge in your Scrum Master interviews?

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Beginnings of an Agile Coaching Team

Photo by Tom Woodward

Photo by Tom Woodward

There’s been enough success with agile to justify forming a coaching team—congrats! Now what?

A few big questions come up:

  • How will we know if agile coaching is successful or not?

  • How will coaching be structured in the organization?

  • Which teams or groups will agile coaches work with?

That first question is a doozy! Agile coaches can be squeamish about metrics to evaluate how effective their efforts are because ultimately results are outside of their control. Yet we all like to know that our work adds value and makes a difference; when we feel we are not seeing positive results despite our best efforts, we will look to make a change in that coaching relationship. Metrics could support conversations with the people we coach about how things are going and if coaching should continue with them or not.

Coaching could be structured around working with groups for a particular timeframe or until a team reaches a particular set of capabilities. There’s often an underlying assumption that every team will need agile coaching, and that leads to agile coaches having more teams to coach than they can handle at once. Organizations typically need a diverse coaching group that includes technical skills, product/business skills, and organizational change/team dynamics skills—this is important in enabling longer-term benefits of agile. Hopefully these coaches are working together (rather than in silos by specialty or disparate areas of the organization) and are aligned with a shared goal.

Which brings us to the final big question from above. There are many options to consider in determine which groups or teams to start coaching:

  • Management/leadership so they “go first”

  • Teams that ask for coaching because they are open and motivated

  • Teams whose managers request coaching for them because they must be important and have management backing

  • Teams working on the highest priority products/work for the organization so that they are more likely to be successful and create visible wins

  • Teams who will be working on new products so they get started on a good path and we can make use of the fresh start from a timing perspective

  • Teams that are bottlenecks for programs/other teams because these will have a multiplier effect for the organization

Other options probably exist, and there’s no clear “use this approach in all cases” answer. In fact, some agile coaching teams offer different products or services based on those “customer” personas or needs.

Newly formed agile coaching teams need to take some time to think through these questions and create their own charter. It would be easy to just start coaching and become so busy that we forget to reflect on our efforts. Let’s get clarity about our plan to help the organization because doing so will enable us to replan later as needed. An agile coaching team that can pivot based on organizational needs is quite amazing.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Clarity, Chaos, and Agile Coaching

Photo by Kai C. Schwarzer

Photo by Kai C. Schwarzer

Over a hundred development teams, multiple layers of IT management, several business units, and a culture of busyness. Projects and programs are “behind.” There’s a desire to modernize technologies and upskill employees. The potential investment for change is significant, and agile coaches see an overwhelming number of ways to potentially help teams and the organization at large.

As a coaching group, we may struggle to align on an overarching goal. Most of our time is likely spent with development team members, and we may “take their side” against the organization that has not empowered them. We may juggle training demands and coaching multiple teams, inevitably making trade-off decisions about which team’s events to attend because we cannot be everywhere for everyone. We may take on other people’s problems to solve because we feel compelled to be helpful. The current state of the organization can seem so far from our lofty vision of the future that we lose sight of the small wins.

There will be high stress throughout this process. There will be setbacks, emotional outbursts, and many times when people regret having started a transformation. There will be conflicts be- tween coaches and client staff. There will be disagreements among coaches regarding approach or methods. Even when things appear to be progressing smoothly, it’s likely that problems are lurking just below the surface. (David Nicolette, Technical Coaching for IT Organizational Transformation)

It is easy for the stress to creep in and deplete us. With double- and triple-booked calendars and a fuzzy goal to help people be “more agile,” agile coaches can struggle to show up and be present for all the relationships that need us—teams, their stakeholders, and our coach-colleagues. Nicolette shares a meditation in his book that resonated for me immediately: the eye of the hurricane. I have often called to mind similar imagery when working with groups that are spiraling with conflict, drowning in large amounts of work, or getting stuck in the face of big challenges. I take a deep breath to find the calm within myself so I can think more clearly. We must learn to take care of ourselves as agile coaches so we can best serve others.

From the eye of the hurricane, we may see when we’re operating from a common assumption that every team needs the same agile capabilities and proficiencies. Does every application or product require the utmost agility? Maybe not. It’s not for us as agile coaches to decide.

We can reduce stress on ourselves and others by having upfront conversations with leadership about what capabilities they desire from teams and the value those will provide to them and the organization. Gaining clarity on the target means we also discuss the investments (e.g., training, coaching support, infrastructure/tooling, organization structure changes, etc.) that may be needed. Rather than try to effect all sorts of changes under a general goal of “coaching teams to be more agile,” we can partner with leaders and enable them to make more informed decisions about how much to invest in their organization and understand the support they’ll need to provide. Trust is built when we clarify expectations and set more realistic goals for ourselves and for teams.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Sharing Experience through Speaking

Photo by Xava du

Photo by Xava du

A group of us sat in a row together. We wanted to listen to our friend Ryan give his presentation on retrospectives. This wasn’t the usual “how to facilitate effective retrospectives” talk either—this was his experience of focusing on one problem and using retros to experiment and learn from trying to solve it. Over the course of a year and a half. It was one line of code.

I LOVED IT. A humble and wise presentation on using retrospectives to do the very thing we dream they can do: enable a team to solve problems. It was honest and inspiring.

Ryan will be presenting this topic again at DFW Scrum tonight (July 16th). It’s an evening of experience reports in preparation for Agile 2019, and I’ll also be presenting the talk I co-wrote with Skylar Watson (“The Downfalls of Coaching in a Hierarchical Model”). Our papers have been published online here.

I hope you come support Ryan (and me) this evening at the meetup. More importantly though, I hope you’ll find your topic and volunteer to speak at a community event. We learn from reflecting on our experiences—good, bad, and ugly—that may inform what all of us can do differently tomorrow. Watch the below video for more of my thoughts on getting started as a speaker:

However how small, or mundane, or obvious it might seem, there is something in sharing your experience with others that can be incredibly powerful. We as a community grow stronger as a result.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Looking at Location and Time in Open Space

Photo by Sharyn Morrow

Photo by Sharyn Morrow

As an Open Space attendee, I find myself wondering how different spaces may impact the sessions I convene or participate in. Over the last two months, I’ve attended 3 “unconference” events in different cities. One was held in a conference center, another in a sound studio, and the third in a navigation training facility. The locations provided different atmospheres. A conference center can be like a blank canvas. Sound studios are already a place for creative work to happen, and I enjoyed the jam-like vibe of sessions in the space. Noise from a session was isolated from other sessions downstairs, whereas sessions in the main room could be heard freely. Finding one’s way around a navigation training facility can be tricky, however, there are some nice gathering spots that can be found down the various hallways if you wander around a bit.

Organizers often help indicate which spaces may have tables or projectors for sessions that may want to use them; the marketplace may have icons to indicate this, or a map may be posted nearby with details. In many cases, the marketplace wall shows a grid of times and locations that leaves little (if any) room for deviations from the named locations. Organizers and facilitators take note: there might be other really cool spaces available nearby that have not been named explicitly in your grid. Leave possibility open in the marketplace for attendees to expand where sessions happen.

At a glance, the marketplace typically looks like firmly timeboxed sessions. Seeing that, my inner rebel wants to break through the perceived boundaries there. The Greeks had 2 words for time—kronos and kairos—and I long for the latter in Open Space. Let’s move away from the experience of sequential time, the time of clocks and calendars that can be quantified and measured, and choose to experience time that is creative and serendipitous. Embrace “time that is energized by the living dream of the future and presents us with unlimited possibility.” The marketplace does not have to be posted as a traditional grid:

Marketplace Setup at Agile Coach Camp Canada 2018

Marketplace Setup at Agile Coach Camp Canada 2018

In the past, I’ve attended sessions in a hallway, the bean bag chair area of an office, outside at a campground, at a brewery next to the facility, and at the Kurt Vonnegut museum that was within walking distance. Those conversations and experiences stand out for me as rich and engaging. I remember opting out from participating in unconference sessions that were part of a larger conference and going to the coffee shop within the conference hotel to hang out. There, I found others doing the same. We’d un-unconferenced and found ourselves together in the same space. We were then closer to the spirit that Open Space originated from: the rich conversations that happen in the hallways.

Coffee and snack areas are helpful, as well as other quieter areas for reflection. Personally, I end up being a butterfly for some period of time at many open spaces. Maybe I felt a need to hibernate (rest away from people), retreat to my own thoughts (and created a future blog post), or didn’t find a “thing” to connect to at that time (so I wandered around or read instead). I could be sitting back and taking in the energy of the room. I could be scanning for something to attract my attention further. I could be taking advantage of the location to do something really geeky like listen to my Spotify playlist while I’m at the Spotify office.

Martin and I at Agile Coach Camp US 2017 held in New York

Martin and I at Agile Coach Camp US 2017 held in New York

Reflecting on the influence of location and experience of time as an attendee highlights what makes Open Space special compared to other events. When we facilitate Open Space, our fundamental job is to honor the space for the people; putting care into the location, how time is modeled, and structure of the marketplace can have a significant impact on the overall experience.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.

Reflecting as an Attendee on Open Space Events

Photo by Mark Faviell

Photo by Mark Faviell

Attending and participating in an Open Space event is quite different from facilitating one, and I think taking notice of our experiences as attendees can help us prepare to be better facilitators.

As an Open Space attendee, I show up looking forward to connecting with others based on the ideas that we propose—ideas that hold meaning for us in that moment. My brain may be wanting to further process concepts that I’ve been reading or I may be excited to share something I’ve found useful or an idea that might serve this newly formed community may pop up for me.

Bob Galen wrote,

I have mixed feelings about Open Space events and I’m not sure why. My personal experience with them is two-fold. Either they are wonderful and powerful or they are terrible. There is sort of nothing in between.

There is skill to facilitating Open Space such that attendees can be present to one another and to themselves. Saying the Open Space principles aloud can be like an incantation that sparks magic in the room (witnessed as creativity and passion in the marketplace creation). Or it can be like a recitation of the safety procedures at the beginning of a flight—the scripted message we’ve heard before and are likely to tune out. A marketplace still comes into being, albeit less energetically, less populated, or with less innovative thinking.

The notion behind Open Space was inspired by the hallway conversations that occurred at traditional conferences. Open Space organizers do work to take care of logistics for attendees—we are informed of where and when to show up, how meals will be handled, and that might be enough. Some groups plan for ice breakers, games, or lightning talks beforehand—I imagine this is to help me feel more connected and present as an attendee than (1) letting us gather naturally at a meal or (2) jumping straight into opening the space. Defining and stating a clear goal for these pre-Open Space activities can help both the facilitator and attendees connect them to the overall event experience. Provide enough structure to the activities to create the desired outcomes of building connections between people or priming creative thinking. Asking people to mingle openly can feel awkward for introverts.

Attendees often experience a strong sense of FOMO (fear of missing out) at conferences, and Open Space is not immune. Would I feel better to hear that experience is normal? What responsibility do I need to take as an attendee to further get what I want from the event? I often forget that I can ask someone to move their session in the marketplace to accommodate my ability to attend. There’s no guarantee they’ll do it, but I will have at least tried.

Attending an Open Space event can be exciting, inspiring, confusing, or even off-putting for people. Facilitators prepare a lot beforehand and can make what they do look easy—walking around a circle a few times and reading posters. There’s much more to it than that, I assure you. Thinking about the experience I want attendees to have gives me clarity on what I need to do as a facilitator. For resources to prepare as a facilitator, check out Michael Herman’s site.

Allison Pollard

I help people discover their agile instincts and develop their coaching abilities. As an agile coach with Improving in Dallas, I enjoy mentoring others to become great Scrum Masters, coaching managers to grow teams that deliver amazing results, and fostering communities that provide sustainability for agile transformations. In my experience, applying agile methods improves delivery, strengthens relationships, and builds trust between business and IT. A big believer in the power of community-based learning, I grew the DFW Scrum user group significantly over the five years I served as an organizer. I am also a Certified Professional Co-Active Coach, a foodie, and proud glasses wearer.