There’s No Show Business in Business?

Of all the trite terminology in the Scrum cookbook, Show & Tell has always been my least favourite.  Couple it with a desire to entertain and you’ve got my idea of a miserable time.  I just don’t see the place for Showbiz in a serious Engineering team.

Or at least I didn’t, and now like a converted zealot I’m happy to evangelise about the benefits of making Show & Tell as engaging as possible!

The Accidental Format

Let’s start with how we run Show & Tell after six months of practice.  It’s a Company-wide event across three locations run for an hour every other Tuesday (‘Turnaround Tuesday’ which is when our sprints end and start).  We have audio and video in each office, people can dial in from home, and we screen share from whichever location is leading one of the talks.

It’s used by every team to showcase what’s going on in their world (and to ask for what they want!).  Powerpoint is hardly used, with people casting realtime demos and content from their laptops.

Each talk is between five and eight minutes long and all presenters stick strictly to the timing.  I can’t emphasise enough what a key bit of choreography this is.  Timing sharpens messages and really makes everyone think about the key point they’re trying to get across.

Arriving here has taken a lot of thought and feedback and certainly isn’t how I expected it to turn out.

Constant Vigilance

The shared Show & Tell arose from two challenges.  One was the passion and energy of our Agile evangelist Andy Deighton.  Andy made me take a step back and think about all our Agile practices.

The second was our then new CTO Peet’s challenge to make ourselves “great at everything we do”.  That phrase from Peet was the lightbulb moment – of course I want to be great at everything I do, but there are only so many hours in the day right?  And as I mentioned above, I’d always disliked even the phrase “Show & Tell”, but at that point we resolved that if we were going to devote energy to it, then we would make it something really useful.

We started Show & Tell sessions pretty much as conventional feedback on each Engineering Team’s sprint.  The only difference was we treated the whole Company as stakeholders and invited them all along.  The first few sessions were pretty shambolic.  Tech failed, we sometimes rambled a bit, we bamboozled our audience with technical words.  But one thing we did do well was ask for, and act upon feedback from each session.

The first improvement was to do with timing.  I’ve already made the point above but I’ll make it again.  The evolution to short, sharp, strictly time-boxed talks was rapid and made the event shorter overall (and therefore less expensive!) and far more compelling.

Another crucial early item of feedback was that other teams within the Company should get involved.  Obvious right?  It feels that way now but at the time we weren’t that sure.  However as soon as the sessions alternated between marketing, customer services, sales, engineering etc. the value of the ceremony increased exponentially.

Next, and most uncomfortably for me, there was a consistent refrain of “Show more, Tell less”.  My road to Damascus moment on this came after a series of quite brilliant presentations which used humour and some strong visual elements to get their point across.  The effect that they had on the audience, and on the way future Show & Tell sessions were conducted was profound.

Finally, we’ve set ourselves a target of evolving the session in at least one way every month.  Whether it’s real time voting, cake or casting, we will always try something new to keep the meeting fresh.

Stage Fright

Going back to the introduction, I’m an Engineer, not an after dinner speaker and the vast majority of people in the Company feel the same way.  The prospect of presenting to the whole Company fills most of us with dread, but the fact is that most of us have now done it.  Coupled with a hugely friendly audience, this shared experience has normalised getting up and talking in front of a crowd.  I’m not saying everyone looks forward to it, but the fear factor has largely gone.

So there you have it, how we Show & Tell.  None of it’s rocket science, but it’s become an important event in the Company calendar.  Every two weeks, teams across the Company get to share their justified pride in the work that they’re delivering.  And if there’s a little bit of Showbiz involved then – grudgingly – I admit that that’s no bad thing!

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