How to run a remote Elephant Carpaccio

In a previous post I promised to write a blog post on how I would run remote Elephant Carpaccio if I get the opportunity to run it a third time. This is that post, but not exactly. In the mean time I got the opportunity to run the workshop one more time. That gave me the opportunity to try out some new things and write this blog post on how to run a remote Elephant Carpaccio.

I should be clear on one thing, though. This post is not a full facilitation guide. It can't be with the limited experience I have. I do hope and think that reading the official(?) facilitation guide and this blog post, gives you a solid base to start running the Elephant Carpaccio exercise remotely yourself.

The preparation

Take your time to prep. Taking as much time as the duration of the workshop is a good start. (That's assuming you are already familiar with the Elephant Carpaccio exercise, though. So if you're not, do that first.) Get a clear picture in your head what you want to achieve with the workshop. Run through it in your mind in detail. Decide which options you have in which parts of the workshop to make changes as the workshop happens.

Set up all the practical stuff: the invite, the video conferencing link, the virtual whiteboard. How early you do this, depends on how much you expect participants to do before the actual workshop. Since it's a remote workshop my advice is to have them to do as much in advance as possible. I've had good experiences with asking participants to do two things in advance.

Firstly, to form into groups, decide on a programming language and set up a dev environment. To be fair, I've been running the workshop with people all working in the same department, so I simply asked them to do this. If people don't know each other that well, you probably should facilitate this more.

Secondly, I asked them to think about why you'd want to slice your features small and to add their thoughts to the workshop's virtual whiteboard. This gives the participants the freedom to do this when and how they want. More importantly it saves time, which is especially important in my opinion for anything that happens remotely. If it doesn't have to happen during the video call, then don't do it during the video call.

The agenda

Although the facilitation guide by Henrik Kniberg and Alistair Cockburn suggests scheduling two hours for the workshop, this 2.5-hour agenda worked better for me:

  • Walk-in & Intro (10 mins)
  • Why slice small? (10 mins)
  • Backlog breakdown (40 mins)
  • Short break (10 mins)
  • Development (45 mins)
  • Short break (5 mins)
  • Review (10 mins)
  • Debrief (20 mins)

Walk-in & Intro

During the Intro you set the tone for the rest of the workshop. If you give simple, clear, and concise instructions, everyone will be on the same page and you can proceed together. Accidentally introduce some confusion, then hopefully it will come to your attention and you'll be able to address it. If not, there will be some friction, some wobbliness in the things that happen next.

The main things to cover in the Intro are the purpose of the workshop, the agenda, and the practical stuff. At the end of the Intro each participant should have a clear picture of what will happen when during the workshop. Which parts are with everyone and which are in breakout rooms? What goes where on the virtual whiteboard? How do the breaks work? (I would say: video off, mic muted, walk away from your desk.)

One thing to address that's specific to Elephant Carpaccio is whether it's two exercises or one exercise. The intention is for it to be one exercise: break down the backlog and build the stuff. Hence, there's only a debrief after the build/development-part. However, it is an exercise in two parts, so make that explicit to the participants. In the debrief at the end it might be an interesting to explore how the workshop was one or two exercises, but during the exercise itself the question is an unwanted distraction.

A second thing to address is that this is an experiential workshop. Consider how familiar your participants are with these kinds of workshops and provide guidance on how to get the most out of an experiential workshop accordingly.

Why slice small?

The goal of the "Why slice small?"-section is not to fully explore that question. Rather, it's a short reminder of the value of slicing small, since it would be odd to do a full workshop on slicing small without addressing the question at all.

What has worked for me is to ask the participants to add their thoughts to the virtual whiteboard in advance. During the workshop we cluster their stickies and discuss any sticky that warrants discussion, e.g. because it's not entirely clear or because another participant has a question about it.

Since it's not a deep dive into the reasons of slicing small, it's not important to create an exhaustive list of reasons on the whiteboard. What I do think is important is there are at least one or two stickies for every category of reasons. For myself I've come up with the following four: better quality, sooner feedback, easier planning, delivering more often. This is certainly not the ultimate list, so I expect to keep adjusting it. For that same reason, I would encourage you to come up with your own. Where it has helped me in facilitating this part of the workshop, is that it allowed me to scan the stickies and decide if each of the four categories was sufficiently covered. If not, I would resolve that with some coaching questions.

Backlog breakdown

The Backlog breakdown starts with an explanation of what features the participants will need to be built. Before having the participants split into their groups and create their backlogs, I like to discuss two questions with the whole group. The first question is: what is the first slice? And the second one: how can you slice the VAT feature?

This puts the participants on track to create a good enough backlog for the development part of the exercise. An alternative approach would be to first let the groups work on their backlog for a bit and then discuss the questions. However, in my experience this takes too much time, especially if one of the groups has gotten further off track and needs to rework their backlog. Another problem with that setup is that it can feel like a trap: participants are expected to come up with the correct backlog, but may not feel they were given enough guidance to come to that correct answer.

One thing to keep in mind as the groups work on their separate backlogs, is how active you want to be as a facilitator. It can be tempting to try and help the groups to create the best possible backlog. I don't think that should be the goal. The goal is to have a good enough backlog, with the groups feeling they created that backlog. Then they get to experience what it's like to develop the slices in that backlog and to finally reflect on the whole experience. Intervening too heavily will diminish that experience, as groups would be developing the slices from a backlog 'fixed' by the facilitator. Which is not to say, of course, that you as a facilitator should not redirect groups if they start making backlog decisions that go against the purpose of the workshop.

Development

The main challenge of the development part of the exercise when remote are the demos. In-person each group is expected to demo to one other group at the end of each of the five iterations. I don't see that working remotely, because it's too much hassle moving between breakout rooms. What I've been doing remotely is to have the groups post a screenshot or gif of their application on the shared virtual whiteboard at the end of each iteration.

The last time I ran the workshop, one group started posting a screenshot after each slice. As a result, they did not have to scramble to produce a screenshot at the end of each iteration. To the other groups, that scramble felt to me more like a distraction than as something useful. So next time I run the workshop, I might ask all groups to do their demo in this way. It will also help remind them to celebrate the completion of each slice.

However, that change to how the demo works, does raise an important question about how important the iterations are for the exercise. If groups demo each slice when it's done by posting a screenshot, there is no longer a need at the end of each iteration to have your application in a working state for the demo. The iterations become meaningless timeboxes - apart perhaps from helping in keeping track of the progression of time.

I suppose there can be a lesson in the scramble, i.e. that with small enough slices it's only a short scramble at the end of the iteration to get the application to a working state. I don't think the exercise needs that particular lesson, though. And in real life you would handle this differently. There you have version control and (hopefully) a pipeline to ensure you always have a version of your application in a state ready for the demo.

The review

According to the facilitation guide, the review should cover the following:

  • How far did you get?
  • How many slices did you have?
  • Acceptance test

I'm still not sure what to do exactly with this review, what purpose it serves. In the third workshop I reduced it to only the acceptance test. And different groups did have different results, but that observation did not lead to an interesting discussion.

Next time I think I'll ask each group for a short demo (an advantage of screen sharing while remote) and to execute the acceptance test as part of the demo.

The debrief

As always with these kinds of workshops the debrief is the hardest and most important part. Of the three times I've ran this workshop, two times participants stuck around after to talk some more about feature slicing. If you run the workshop with a group of people gathered purely for the workshop, I think that's fine. If on the other hand it's with the group of people that work together, that share a context, I think it's better to do something more. Something to assist the participants to bridge the gap between what they experienced in the workshop and their daily work. That can either be a longer debrief with a focus to applying what was learned, or a follow-up session one or two weeks later.