Lessons learned after facilitating remote Elephant Carpaccio

In my previous blog post I shared my experience of facilitating remote Elephant Carpaccio twice. In this second post I want to share some things I learned through that experience that apply to facilitating remote experiential workshops in general.

The facilitation guide

The Elephant Carpaccio exercise has a detailed facilitation guide, created by Henrik Kniberg and Alistair Cockburn (also inventor of the exercise). This guide really is a blessing and a curse. It’s great to have guidance on how to run the exercise. However, there’s also only so much such a guide can do. As I was writing the blog post of me running the exercise twice, I looked at the facilitation guide again, and it made so much more sense to me. Instead of it being instructions about something new, I could connect the contents to my own experiences. And that experience does make me wonder how advisable it is to facilitate an exercise you have never done or seen based on a luckily excellent and very detailed faciliation guide.

The level of detail in the facilitation guide also had me walk into the trap of relying on it too much. Instead of taking my own context fully into account, I though I could follow the guide with a few tweaks. As you could read in my previous post, the first time I ran the exercise, it got away from me a little. In this sense I find it interesting that Oliver Spann seems to have had a similar experience facilitating Elephant Carpaccio for the first time:

I facilitated this exercise and can recommend it to every development team working with user stories - but be prepared that it won’t work out as given in the facilitation guide.”

Guidance on experiential workshops

The Elephant Carpaccio exercise is an experiential workshop. You get to slice an application and then deliver some of those slices. How many slices you deliver doesn’t really matter. What matters is how much and how well you reflect, and what conversations you have with your fellow participants about your experience. A core idea behind these kinds of workshops is that there’s more value in a few smaller lived lessons than in sharing lots of information you won’t remember, let alone connect with.

However, there is an element of skill involved in participating in such workshops. It requires you to move your focus from the task at hand (delivering a piece of software) to what you can learn from reflecting on that task as you perform it. Personally, it took me a while to learn that skill to a level that I started to enjoy and appreciate experiential workshops. Before that, as I was learning this skill, I remember leaving such workshops with the feeling I hadn’t gotten a lot of value from them and that the instructors should be doing more.

That experience leaves me wondering if a little more guidance on how to participate would be valuable. To use Elephant Carpaccio as an example: if participants focus on getting all slices delivered in the five iterations they have - which would be a natural focus, considering their day-to-day jobs - they probably won’t learn much. On the other hand, if they focus on what the experience is like of working with really thin slices, they will identify a few experiences that teach them something about their day-to-day work. Whether those are experiences to seek out or to avoid, does not matter. Both are valuable lessons.

Remote is slower and more opaque

This lessons probably comes as a surprise to no one. Remote is slower than in person, so schedule extra time and keep group size down. I had groups of two or three in my workshops and I’m still convinced that is the maximum size. Collaborating in a breakout room with four people is significantly harder than with two or three.

Remote is also more opaque, which mostly is a challenge for the facilitator. You can’t scan the room to get an overview of how everyone is doing. Even with everyone in the same virtual room, there’s a limit to how many faces you can see at the same time - especially when screen sharing. If everyone is in breakout rooms, you have to enter the separate breakout rooms to get an idea of what’s going on. Having everyone work on the same online whiteboard, will help a little, but rather as an aide which breakout room to visit next than as a way to actually know how a group is doing. So not only group size needs to be kept small, the total number of groups shouldn’t be too large either. By coincidence I ended up with four groups in both workshops. For the Elephant Carpaccio exercise that still feels like the right number.

Take your time for the before and after

Last but definitely not least, investing time in preparation before and reflection after the workshop makes a large difference. Even if the workshop starts to diverge from your preparation, it’s your preparation that allows you to adapt in the moment, to make changes without cutting anything essential. And the reflection after is the first step in your preparation for the next time. Even if you’re not sure when that next time will be, it’s important to at least complete that first step of reflection. Because the longer you wait, the vaguer your memories will be and the less rich your reflection.

Someone once gave me the advice that it’s perfectly fine to take at least as much time to prepare for e.g. a retrospective as the duration of the actual retrospective. Ever since I’ve used that advice as a starting point to decide how much time to spend on prepations: perhaps more than the actual thing, but most likely not less. The same probably applies for the reflection after.