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Introducing lightning talks in your organization


One of my responsibilities at Kantega is to find ways of spreading knowledge within the organization. We have a lot of smart and experienced people in the company. However, our skills and experience is in diverse areas. This is generally a good thing, but it also means we have a lot to learn from each other. The idea came up that if we could get better at sharing, we'll have less reinventing of wheels, we'll do mistakes only once and Kantega will be an even more fun place to work.



At the time this came up, I'd just come back from the Java Posse Roundup 2009 open space conference. The key take away from that conference was: Lightning talks and open space sessions are very efficient (and effective!) ways of sharing knowledge.

A couple months later we were on a company get-together in Barcelona.  Besides consuming a whole lot of tapas and cava and enjoying the city and its architecture, we also set aside half a day to discuss, learn and share about agile software development.  Traditionally, we'd ask one or two "experts" in the company to do a presentation, then split into groups to discuss some questions and join everyone in the end to present the result of each group. This kind of works, but doesn't really engage all the participants.

So with the Java Posse Roundup fresh in mind, I suggested doing something new: One hour of 5-minute lightning talks followed by two hours of open spaces. It was a huge success, so I thought it would be cool to share a few experiences for anyone wanting to do the same:

  • When introducing something new to an organization, do what ever you can to make it a success the first time. It really pays to make an extra effort the first time. People generally will make up their mind after that first experience. You might not  get a second chance.

  • Getting 12 people (out of ~50) to commit to doing a lightning talk on 10 days notice was harder than I thought.
  • I split candidate speakers into three groups: 1: Those who love to talk and do it all the time, 2: those who have a lot of smart things to say but won't unless pushed, and finally 3: those few who will just never stand up in front of a crowd and say anything (unless it's "fire!" :-)

  • I aimed for group 2 with just a few mixed in from group 1. Asking group 1 would be the easy way out: They love talking and my only problem would be to make them shut up after five minutes. But then the concept of lightning talks would have been perceived in the organization as something that is for the people who always talk and that's something I wanted to avoid. Group 3 would be too hard for me, too stressful for them and the resulting talks might not be the best.
  • Almost everyone I asked responded: "..but I am not an Expert on Agile". So I had to convince people I wasn't looking for experts but for people sharing their thoughts and experiences. The notion that you have to be an "expert" to talk about something was well established in our organization and was something we clearly had to "unlearn".

  • Don't just ask people and expect them to show up with a well prepared talk. I followed up on the speakers several times and made sure they were happy with their selected subject and that they were making progress.

  • Three days before Barcelona I joined the speakers in groups of four so they could test-run their talks in front of a small, but real audience. This proved to be immensely useful since it gave people a sense of what five minutes really is and a chance to adjust and improve their presentations. It also made the presenters much more confident on the real presentation.

  • Five minutes works really well because it allows for many points of view in a short time.

  • A count-down timer screen is a must. I placed it so that both the presenter and the audience could see it. With the screen changing from green through yellow to red it's very obvious when you're starting to run out of time. The timer I made wasn't fancy at all, but it served the purpose.

  • Three of twelve talks were intentionally off-topic. Twelve talks on the same subject in a row is a lot. I wanted people to have fun as well. That's key in making something a success the first time.

  • We ran all the presentations from a single computer. Unless you're willing to spend 40% of your time dealing with computer/projector trouble, consider doing the same.

  • Use a good presentation remote (a real RF based, not the flakey bluetooth or wifi ones). People will be less attached to the computer and free to walk around. They'll relax more and look more confident.

  • Remember to take breaks. We did 2x6 lightning talks with a break in between and had breaks before and between the open spaces sessions.

  • Running lighting talks before the open spaces worked really well for getting people to come up with topics for discussion.

  • Some people in management suggested we should prepare some topics in advance. I insisted that's really not what open spaces it about. I must admit I was a little worried though. Open spaces was new to most people and unlike the Java Posse Roundup, this wasn't a self-selecting group of open space enthusiasts.  Someone also suggested we wrote summaries of the discussions, but I refused. Whatever happens happens and when it's done it's done etc.

  • Turns out I had no reason to worry. We had 30% more suggestions that we had room for.

  • The feedback afterwards was very good. I was saw people I'd never seen present before give excellent talks.
Do you have experience introducing introducing lightning talks, open spaces or other kinds of knowledge sharing in your organization?  I'd love to hear your thoughts!