Tuesday 26 April 2016

Idea Mingle to Bootstrap Open Space

Dear Junior

Some of the things I do on a regular basis is to facilitate workshops and events of different kinds - open space being one of them. I'd like to share with you a small trick-of-the-trade I have evolved while facilitating those: the Idea Mingle.

I really like the energy the open space format brings to the discussions. People are familiar with the format of participating in a discussion, and also shy or introvert people are given room to participate in a comfortable way.

However I have sometimes found that the initial part can be a little bit slow, the part where you pitch topics for discussion. This is seldom a problem with groups that are used to open space. Everybody involved understands what "level of ambition" is needed for posting a topic - acknowledging the fact that the really interesting part will be the discussion that unfolds around the topic. However, with groups unused to open space I have found that people can get shy. Posting a subject might seem pretentious: "what have I that everybody else should find interesting". So, when asked at point blanc "what do you think should be discussed", their mind goes blank.

To give the "pitching phase" of open space a soft start I do a "Idea Mingle" that gives people a chance to evolve their interests into discussion topics before it is time to post them. It is a "mingle party" with the purpose of distilling ideas for discussion, thus "Idea Mingle".

The instructions I give are simple: 
  • Look around the room and lock eye contact with someone you have not yet spoken to today. 
  • On my call, pair up
  • Introduce yourself by saying "Hi, my name is …" to each other
  • Continue by saying "I think it would be interesting to discuss something around …" and fill in a field. It does not need to be specific, it can be broad or vague, e g "something about testing".
  • Have a short discussion digging a little bit into each others interests
  • After two minutes I will break the discussion

The basic idea is that the one-on-one-format is a more comfortable format for talking about an idea than to do it in public. Speaking to a stranger is still an uncomfortable situation for a lot of people, me included. However, the short format and the very focused scope makes it managable - as opposed to the usual mingle setting "find a stranger, talk to him/her, and be nice and interesting for an undefined period of time". Just the thought gives me creeps.

Now, after the first one-on-one, all participants have bounced one of their interests on another participant. Almost certainly they have received acknowledgment that "it is an interesting field" and most have probably got feedback of the form "testing is interesting; I myself is interesting in how to use automation to make it easier".

OK, so people have now got a slightly refined idea about an interesting discussion. But, for most of them it is not yet ready to publish as a open-space-discussion-subject.

Allow me a slight detour. 

At a workshop class with Lyssa Adkins and Leslie Stein there was a small knowledge-sharing exercise. During that exercise I was given the task to explain "sprint retrospective" to a few of the other participants. I was given literally no time to prepare, and my presentation time was limited to five minutes (if I remember correctly). It was really awkward.

Immediately after the first group of listeners, I was sent a second group of a few class-mates, and had to explain to them. This time it was less awkward. A third group was sent to me, and this time I basically knew what I should say or not. The fourth time, the explanation went smooth. So, in four iteration a very awkward rambling refined into a pretty crisp micro-presentation.

Back to open space and Idea Mingle.

The next instruction for Idea Mingle is: Now, lock eye-contact with someone else. And, we do the same thing once again.

At the end of this second one-on-one the idea might have evolved to "automation in testing, and the trouble with databases".

And then we repeat the one-on-one a total of four times.

At this point of time, many of the participants have received acknowledgement that they are interested in a field others also are interested in. And, a lot of them have refined an initial rough idea into something that is a more specific topic, e g "How to involve DBAs in test automation" - a topic ready for discussion.

And we are ready to form a queue for pitching topics to discuss.

Also, everyone is a little bit frustrated over that each one-on-one was interrupted just when they were getting started. So, all participants are eager to start the open space discussions.