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Agile Open Conferences within Cox Automotive

| Posted by René Rosendahl Follow 0 Followers on Oct 09, 2015. Estimated reading time: 8 minutes |

Background

There is plenty of “Agility” going on within Cox Automotive, which has over 20 brands and companies in the automotive space including common household names such as Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book. Within the US alone, there are currently roughly 135 active Agile teams and the number is continuously growing. Since all these different companies and business units don’t share a common ancestry and history and still retain a certain amount of independence, there is a lot of diversity in this organization.

So it is no surprise that a few years ago several individuals, who were passionate about Agile, suggested to bring members from the Agile community together to get to know each other, share their experiences and learn from one another. As a format, the Open Space Technology was chosen. Like at regional Agile Open conferences, people would come together and self-organize around topics that are meaningful to them. Instead of having a predefined agenda and topics, the attendees themselves create those during the event.

The general “recipe” for these 2-day Open Space conferences is roughly this:

  • Attendees gather in the morning for an icebreaker and kick-off introducing the format.
  • The “marketplace” takes place:
    • People suggest topics (things they would like to share or get input on) and write them on flip charts.
    • Topics get introduced to the audience via quick 30-second pitches.
    • Everyone places votes on topics they’re interested in.
    • Topics – based on level of interest – get scheduled into a pre-defined number of time slots and conference rooms.
  • After the marketplace, the “conference” begins and people start attending the sessions per the just established “schedule”.
  • The first day typically ends with a social and networking event.
  • The second day begins with a short keynote or focus talk.
  • The schedule gets refactored, if necessary, and people spread out again as they’re attending the next sessions.
  • The second day ends in the afternoon with a brief wrap up and event retrospective.

It is noteworthy that individuals suggesting topics don’t have to have materials prepared or be experts on the topic. It’s sufficient for the session organizers to kick off their session, summarize what the topic is and it’s up to the attendees what happens next. More often than not, the suggested topic may be something (e.g. an aspect or practice of Agile) that the organizer struggles with or would like input on from the attendees. Therefore the sessions often take the shape of an engaged discussion between the attendees about their experiences rather than a presentation by the organizer. As the discussion naturally evolves, flip charts and other materials get filled up with notes by the audience.

The four principles of Open Space Technology, which guide each session, are:

  • Whoever comes are the right people.
  • Whatever happens is the only thing that could.
  • It starts when it starts.
  • It’s over when it’s over.

These principles help keep the sessions very organic and informal and take away a lot of the pressure people might otherwise feel when chairing a session.

Another principle the attendees of Open Space sessions follow is the Law of Mobility and Responsibility (also known as the “Law of Two Feet”): “If you are not learning or contributing where you are, find a place where you can learn or contribute.” So if a particular topic is not what an attendee expected, he is free to walk out and find another session where he can contribute or derive value. And sometimes the most beneficial conversations may take place in hallways where people run into other attendees and spontaneous conversations emerge.

The types of individuals attending Cox Automotive’s Agile Open conferences are varied, coming from various business units, with different backgrounds, job titles, departments, and levels of Agile experience. What matters is not the level of Agile expertise, but the willingness to share, engage and contribute.

Since many participants have not previously attended an Open Space event, they may initially be skeptical of how it’s possible to “make up a conference on-the-fly” and how useful such an event could possibly be, but the retrospectives conducted at the end clearly show that this type of event is immensely valuable. By the end of the conference, the initial skeptics find themselves actively immersed in discussions and participating, new relationships have been created and a sense of energy and renewed passion for Agile is noticeable.

In recent years, one small extension of the open space has been “Coaches’ Corner” where for a few hours internal (or external) Agile coaches are available in a room where anybody can drop in, chat and get “professional opinions”. On that note, in order to keep the event really true to its internal nature, we have – despite several offers – not taken our vendor partners up on the offer to help with focus talks, keynotes or otherwise be present. That way, the event is really about practitioners talking amongst each other.

Organization

The Cox Automotive Agile Open events aren’t trivial to organize, but over the last few years, we’ve figured out a repeatable approach. It starts with outreach within our own Agile community to find people willing to pitch in and help organize the event. In recent years we’ve been able to gather 10-20 people from across our business units (BUs) each year to volunteer.

Then it’s about the different BUs establishing a combined budget based on individual contributions as well as determining a suitable location. We’ve been able to have the event at different locations across the country (usually at or close to one of our BUs), which makes sense since we’re spread out across the US with various office locations.

With the major pieces in place, it really comes down to dealing with all the logistical aspects of the event, anything from signage to registration, hotel accommodations, t-shirts, SWAG, gift-bags, speakers for focus talks, etc. Regular calls as well as a Kanban board are critical elements in keeping everyone informed and collaborating.

Outward-facing communications are important as well, including reaching out to each BU, announcing the event and determining number of attendees from each of our companies as well as balancing that against the capacity of the facility and the overall budget.

Although these events are really put together by volunteers, we’ve been able to organize them well and create a very professional-looking appearance.

Results

At the time of this writing, we already conducted two Cox Automotive Agile Open conferences in 2013 and 2014 near Kelley Blue Book in California and at Autotrader in Georgia with 75 and 100 attendees respectively.

After initial hesitation of the first-timers, everyone always seemed to truly enjoy the event and ended up participating, sharing and learning. One can’t help but notice a sense of energy and invigoration that comes from speaking and engaging with fellow Agilists. Our own internal Agile Open conferences provide a unique and powerful common platform that allows people to meet and network with colleagues from across the country and see that we’re all part of the same family while encountering similar challenges in the attempt to “become and be Agile”. One can perceive a true sense of community between the people gathered. What might’ve been strangers during the kick-off end up being Agile friends and compatriots by the time the retro comes around.

In the end, everyone returns to their home offices, but with a feeling of renewed vigor around Agile and relationships that started at an Agile Open tend to last for years to come. More often than not, people who met at the Agile Open stay in touch and even cross-business unit communities of practice have been founded at our events.

Planning for a 2015 Cox Automotive Agile Open in the fall at one of our BU locations is currently in progress.

Takeaways

Here are some takeaways from the past few years:

  • There is immense value in bringing people from within the organizations together and providing a platform for them to exchange experiences around Agile.
  • A good number of people from the audience will be new to the Open Space format. Explain it – well!
  • Even if people are initially unsure of the format, it’ll all be just fine. The format works!
  • The marketplace section of the event requires the most attention and oversight.
  • Allow for (and encourage) hallway conversations and organic networking. Having casual seating opportunities in the area – in additional to rooms for sessions – will encourage ad-hoc conversations.
  • Keep the event personal and “to the family” by limiting vendor involvement.
  • Having volunteers and organizers easily identifiable during the event and ready for questions will help especially first-timers.
  • Inspect and adapt – during the event as well as from year to year.
  • Don’t skimp on communication (and marketing) leading up to the event. Use different channels, communicate often and to different audiences (participants but also stakeholders and executives for support). Send reminders. Put yourself in the shoes of a participant who’s doing this for the first time.
  • Take lots of pictures.
  • Following the conference, people will appreciate being able to share their contact info and having a repository for conference materials, pictures etc. as well as collaboration tools.

Summary

At Cox Automotive we’ve had good success with internal Agile Open events over the years. Based on the results, this event has become part of our Agile DNA. People have started assuming that we’ll be having an Agile Open every year and are looking forward to it. As we’re growing as a company and going through the journey that is Agile, we are hoping to be able to continue what is now a tradition of internal Cox Automotive Agile Open conferences.

About the Author

René Rosendahl joined Kelley Blue Book in 2007 and held various positions in the Project Management Office. He helped the organization adopt and roll out Agile and is engaged in Kelley Blue Book’s Agile Council. In August 2014 René took on a new role with Cox Automotive (Kelley Blue Book’s parent) to build the Agile Enablement function which provides support for Agile across all Cox Automotive companies. Apart from project management, René’s professional background includes hands-on software development, ERP systems, and consulting. Outside of work René, enjoys daily exercise and also develops applications for the Mac app store.

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