We’re going all in…

On 12 March, I wrote a few words in response to Craig’s message regarding helping a bunch of local meetups move to online delivery in the face of the extraordinary situation we’re all facing right now, with regard to COVID-19.

This originally appeared on LinkedIn on 13 March 2020

The Headline: We are going all-in with LAST Anywhere virtual learning sessions

I started thinking about doing virtual events as far back as the start of 2019 and did an experiment featuring John Cutler during the year, as well as a couple of other experiments with hybrid physical/virtual meetups. We had some great learnings about structuring online events that retain a sense of connectedness which is the essence of the meetups and conferences that I organise. In addition, over the past few years, we have had virtual keynotes at LAST Conference from the likes of Dr Peter Senge, Norman Bodek (video), Kriti Sharma, Christina Gerakiteys, Professor Henry Mintzberg, and Mick Liubinskas.

My plan was always to roll more out in 2020, and the need for them has come sharply into focus in the last few weeks, with the current viral outbreak. We are going to rapidly build out a program of similar events, under the LAST Anywhere banner, to cover at least the next few months, and Craig and I are currently putting a program together. We are also going to be supporting various meetups, as Craig mentioned.

We have already scheduled a session with James Christie on 1 April. James is the founder of the virtual conference, Sustainable UK, and has been running this conference since 2016. By day, James is Director of User Experience at the New England agency, Mad*Pow. He’ll be sharing learnings about his experiences running a remote event and also working with distributed clients and colleagues. His insights will lead into facilitated breakout sessions.

The way it’s currently structured is that you can pay a one-off fee to register for 1 April or you can enter into a monthly subscription that will allow you to have the first refusal on one or two sessions per month. We intend to have several sessions per month to choose from. By the way, if you were part of John Cutler’s session, expect a discount code in your email inbox. Also, the current meetups scheduled for the Melbourne Agile and Scrum meetup and the Spark the Change meetup will remain low or no cost.

Register for LAST Anywhere

You can see the options for registering for LAST Anywhere sessions here.

The Thinking Behind LAST Anywhere

I wanted to share more about some of the thinking behind the LAST Anywhere series, to allow you to understand how I’m trying to provide an improved experience that keeps the community qualities of my meetups and conferences that people really like. I also want to support the community that we have grown with over the last 8 years of LAST Conferences, and even longer for meetups. With physical gatherings being curtailed across the world, and probably almost inevitably in Australia, I really see a need to keep bringing people together.

Like a physical LAST Conference and the first Anywhere, we will be charging a fee for future sessions. I need to make sure I cover the overheads of putting these things together, hopefully, compensate presenters for their time, and keep contributing to the Flying Robot School…something we have been doing with the Melbourne Agile and Scrum meetup for the last couple of years.

I don’t have all the answers, (and sometimes I don’t even know the questions!), but we will be doing our best to create a valuable, next-generation, non-formal, professional learning experience. In the spirit of Jurgen Appelo’s Startup, Scaleup, Screwup, I will be experimenting, asking for feedback, changing and improving along the way.

Face-to-face conversation

It is a truth universally acknowledged, to borrow from Jane Austen, that the richness of communication between people is increased by face-to-face communication. To illustrate this see Chris Chan’s interpretation of the Cockburn/Ambler “Modes of Communication” diagram from the early 2000s, below.

The basis for a lot of what we as a community of practitioners, as well as what I do with the meetups that I organise, and conferences such as LAST Conferences, and 1st Conferences is on fostering connectedness between people who have a similar professional and intellectual interest in particular topics in the Lean, Agile and Systems Thinking space.

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Source – Chris Chan, Email-is-a-time-waster.

 It’s even embodied in the sixth principle of 2001’s Manifesto for Agile Software Development

The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation. — The sixth principle of the Agile Manifesto

As Chris Chan says in his blog post:

Getting people together face-to-face provides richness in our communication through, tone of voice, eye contact, visual gestures and the ability to convey tacit knowledge.”

To a great extent it holds true, not only with IT dev teams, but with teams of people in general. However, the world is always changing…

Things change, things stay the same

In around 2006, I was living and working in the UK at the time that 3G mobile networks were being introduced. My colleague Richard, excitedly came into the office one day and brandished his new, 3G enabled phone. “The phone company is giving out free video calls for a limited time!”, he said. He showed me his phone and a postage stamp size, low resolution and low frame rate video of his wife was on the screen.

I remember thinking, “Why would you ever want to do that?”

Fast forward ten to fifteen years and video calls have become much more widespread, to the point of ubiquity. Every Google Calendar invite has the option for a video call, for example. Soon, displays (or perhaps virtual reality) will be such that bringing someone up at life size on a screen will become possible, easy and second nature to a new generation of “digital natives”.

In early 2019, I was reading about the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. I noticed some display technology that works like Lego bricks that clicked together to form increasingly larger displays, as well as increasingly Ultra High Definition screens.

At the same time, I also started thinking about connectivity and improvements in data transfer speeds. Despite how much the NBN has come under fire, I would think it won’t get worse, it will get better. We also have 5G mobile coming, with a large increase in speed, plus I can also get good download speeds at 30,000 feet on a plane.

A photo of Ed and Lisette in Nijmegen

Another thing that happened in early 2019 was I asked Lisette Sutherland to speak at 1st Conference, because I noticed that more and more people had been trying come to grips with working with remote colleagues, and this is Lisette’s forte. I had met Lisette in 2016 because I had heard about her and emailed her, but really wanted to meet her. So I travelled to Nijmegen in the Netherlands, and I hung out with her for a couple of days. She was in the middle of writing her book Work Together Anywhere, so I said that she should come out to Melbourne when it was finished to speak at the conference.

Of course, I do realise that there’s an irony here…but it also shows that the richness of communication that comes with face-to-face communication is still very valuable. This is in spite of the shifts in mindset and improvements in technology in the last few years.

They aren’t “webinars”

LAST Anywhere will have interactive and facilitated learning sessions. They aren’t “webinars”. The connotation I have of those is a vendor hosting a slightly dry talk, followed by a sales pitch. Some online events I have attended have had a “backchannel” like Slack, that can be used for discussion between participants, sometimes presenters also join in. This does have a purpose, however, it doesn’t go far enough in replicating or compensating for the physical experience of talking to someone at the break at a conference, or working on a problem together at a meetup.

The format we used with John, was to have him talk about a “Product Management Conundrum/Trap” for a few minutes, then for facilitated breakout sessions to happen, with John popping into sessions to have real-time discussions with people. We did this 3 times and then a final “Ask Me Anything” to round out the experience. It was spirited and engaging.

This led to feedback like:

It was probably the best online training I’ve been involved in. Looking forward to seeing it progress

and…

I thoroughly enjoyed the session with John Cutler last year and can’t wait for more”,

and…

I was worried about my attention span, and that I would get distracted. But that was super engaging and I was ‘present’ the whole time.

Another benefit is that instead of being geographically restricted, it means that people who are in Bendigo, Darwin, Wellington or Tokyo could join. In fact, we’ve had people from Singapore and the USA join us at previous online meetups.

We have lots of other ideas for compelling formats and ways to enable more people to take part, while still keeping a high level of connectedness. I hope that this is something that you might want to be part of!

PS – Depending on what happens in the coming days and weeks, we are also thinking of ways that the series of LAST Conferences in Brisbane, Adelaide, Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne can be switched to an online model. We should say though, that the plan is still to be able to hold physical events in July and August.

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