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How To Organise A Scrum Gathering

I recently stumbled across this in my blog drafts folder, and thought it was about time to finish it, since we are contemplating a new event this year.

As one of the organisers of the first South Africa Scrum Gathering in September 2010, I decided to blog about the experience. Hopefully fellow User Groups around the world who are considering a Gathering can learn from this.

What we did well

Built a strong user group community before embarking on a Gathering

The South African Scrum User Group had been around for two years when we held the Gathering. We hold monthly events on the first Thursday of every month and have between 30 and 100 people attending each month. We also have a mailing list of about 1000 people country wide. It was important to have this base that was interested to ensure we could attract sufficient people to make the event feasible.

Had a strong and diverse user group committee

We had a committee of 7 people involved in organising the gathering. All were volunteers doing this in their spare time. Having this many people meant that the load could be shared. But more importantly the committee really wanted the event to be a success and so they all contributed many hours of their own time to make it happen.

Most of the organising team

Held a smaller event the year before to gain experience

In 2009 we held a one day event called “Scrum Day”. This featured only local speakers and Jeff Sutherland via internet video link. I think this was crucial to the success of the event. Firstly we had built a reputation of delivering value for money and hosting a professional event. Secondly we got first hand experience about all the things that needed to be thought of, 4 of the committee members involved in the Gathering had been involved in the event the year before

Attended another Scrum Gathering before organising one

Three of the committee members organising the event had attended another Scrum Gathering. This meant that we knew it was about connecting with others more than it was about a conference. This definitely influenced the program and even the venue. I would highly recommend this if you are going to organise a Gathering. The Scrum Alliance even gave 2 of us free entry to the Orlando Gathering specifically for this.

Took a risk on Open Space

The second day of the 2 day event was a full day of Open Space. This was a big risk for us because Open Space was fairly new to the local community. However those of us who had attended Open Space at other Gatherings felt it was a crucial part of creating that participatory atmosphere. We debated this a long time, and in the end the general consensus was that people loved it. A few people didn’t get it, but on the whole people really engaged with it and got a lot of value.

Had the survey ready to go before the event

Something we learned from our early event is that by the time the event is over, you will be exhausted. Last year we didn’t get the post-event survey out for at least a week, which meant we got very few responses. This year we did the work before the event and had it queued up on mailchimp to be automatically sent the day after the event. Getting feedback soon after the event is crucial, and if this wasn’t automated it would never have happened.

Made the international speakers feel welcome

We got a lot of thanks from the international speakers for making them feel welcome. I took some of them diving to see cow sharks in Cape Town’s icy waters, we held a traditional South African braai at our house the weekend before the event, and we had numerous drinks and dinners. Although we received many thanks for this, it was probably the least amount of effort, we were so glad to have speakers willing to travel long haul to the tip of Africa, mostly for not even enough money to cover their expenses, that we were happy to entertain them.

Deep dive pre-registration and kanban token

We had 10 deep dive sessions on the first day, and 12 venues of varying sizes some of which could be combined. Each presenter also gave their input as to maximum class size. It was pretty damn hard to figure out which talks would be most popular on the day and therefore which to allocate to which rooms. We decided we needed some kind of pre-registration tool and then some way of figuring our who had registered for what and knowing how many seats were left in each venue on the day. It seemed like a huge task. In the end we wrote some user stories for a tool to allow pre-registration, prioritised them, and had one of our committee members who likes to code in his spare time implement what he could in a one day weekend sprint. What was so awesome about this is because we only focused on the requirements and not the tool, he found a way to implement the most important things we needed in a WordPress plugin, which was super simple. We didn’t even implement everything we though we might need. Just the most important stuff, and that was enough! It was awesome to see that we could apply Scrum to our own needs and succeed as a result. To solve the dilemma about what to do on the day for people who hadn’t pre-registered or who might want to change their mind, we used paper kanban tokens. Each person go a different colour depending on the deep dive they had selected. We had spares for deep dives with remaining seats, and allowed people to trade if they wanted to. People who hadn’t pre-registered got to pick from the left over tokens when they registered. It was a simple solution, and it worked like a charm.

Held a retrospective to learn from the experience

I was really glad that true to what we teach in Scrum, we held a retrospective after the event. We even aired some of the difficulties we had openly. This was a joint retrospective been the local team and some of the folks from the Scrum Alliance, facilitated by a neutral and expert facilitator Sigi Kalternecker. I was impressed by everyone’s openness and respect for each other, that I think lead to some insights for us all.

Notes from our retrospective

What could be improved

Delegate Driven Design

In try agile fashion we crafted a new DD term – Delegate Driven Design (thanks Simon!). It’s keeping the conference delegate foremost in your mind in every decision you make. I think we lost our way a bit on this. For example, we didn’t help delegates understand how to select the most appropriate deep dive based on their knowledge and experience and expectations. In hindsight, we probably would have made the deep dives shorter to allow people to attend more than one. We could have allowed delegates an opportunity to ask questions about speakers and deep dives before selecting their choice. We would have had more scrum clinic sessions with speakers to provide more people an opportunity to interact with these Scrum professionals.

Clarify Responsibilities with Sponsors

One of the biggest issues we had is that we didn’t clarify responsibilities between the Scrum Alliance and the local organising group well. As a result we had lots of misunderstandings in terms of who was responsible for what, and who could make certain decisions. Also given that we were based in Cape Town, and the Scrum Alliance mostly in the United States it was difficult to keep each other in the loop. Eventually we ended up having a weekly call, but we should have done this much sooner, and kept in more regular contact. We all know how difficult it is to communicate across teams who are distributed and we could have taken this into account. On reflection with the Scrum Alliance, we all felt that it would work much better to have a different model for regional Gatherings where the Scrum Alliance provide funding and guidelines around use of the Gathering brand, and the local committee take full responsibility for the event.

Registration process

Our registration process was appalling! We used reg-online badly. The people who understood the requirements didn’t know how the tool worked, and the person who knew how the tool worked didn’t know the requirements. We never spoke directly before the registration process was set up. We also didn’t take into account how slow reg-online would be from South Africa, and that most people would want to pay by EFT not Credit Card. I’m not sure what the solution for this is, but I do know that you shouldn’t assume it will go smoothly. This is the first exposure people have to the event, if it doesn’t go well it could make them reconsider coming to the event.

More pre-gathering meetups

We got quite a bit of feedback that people would have like to have more social events before the Gathering and opportunities to meet some of the people who had traveled to Cape Town for the event. I think if we had provided more social networking opportunities perhaps the weekend before, people who have gotten more benefit. This didn’t need to cost anything, simply emailing delegates and saying there was going to be a meetup at a certain location would have been sufficient.

Didn’t make a profit

Finally, the event did not make a profit. In fact it made a R70,000 loss. Fortunately the Scrum Alliance agreed to cover this loss. However, our intention had been to generate a profit which could be used to further the impact of the local Scrum User Group. Most of the reason for this was probably the split responsibility between the Scrum Alliance and the User Group that meant no one person was managing all the costs and sponsorship. With the different model mentioned earlier, we definitely believe a profit would be possible.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Howard Sublett #

    Karen, you guys did a fantastic job and really broke new ground in the area of regional gatherings. For the events victories and speed bumps you and the local user group should hold their heads high. I wish there had been a ton of profit for your group, but rarely do gatherings prove profitable. ( i can remember only 2 in the past 3 yrs) Maybe it was the way the SA structures who and what they spend, or just the nature of the beast of holding a conference for 200. I think the economy of scale would make it profitable for a group of 1,000 (think Agile Alliance and 1 a year )

    Good luck with the next one. I would love to help you out in any way possible!! I am a better person for sharing time with you and members of your community!!

    April 11, 2011
    • Thanks Howard, was great working with you too. Would love to do it again sometime!

      April 11, 2011

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