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Using Pairing for Experimenting in Presentations

In the closing keynote of the Agile Eastern Europe 2015 conference Yves Hanoulle talked about the agile and lean mindset. During the session Yves and his 12 year old son Joppe did a pairing experiment.

Before starting the experiment they wanted to find out if the conference would be a safe enough environment to do it. Asking the audience confirmed that it was safe to experiment. Next they gave the audience the opportunity to vote between getting a pair presentation done by Yves and Joppe or a solo presentation from Yves. The audience voted to see the paired version. Together they talked about topics like safety, failure and failing, doing experiments, taking small steps, feedback, celebrating and learning. The audience appreciated the Q&A style that they used to get their messages across.

InfoQ interviewed Joppe and Yves Hanoulle about doing experiments, checking the safety of the environment and finding ways to make it safer, learning from failure, and presenting in pairs at conferences.

InfoQ: Can you give some examples of how you do experiments?

Yves: I find that a very hard question. It’s hard because for me, most things in life are experiments.

Our presentation at AgileEE was an experiment. First of all, Joppe as a 12 year old being on stage is an experiment, the fact that he talks in English even if he never had any English in school, makes it even a bigger experiment.

There are multiple ways that it stays safe:

  1. by asking if the audience finds it safe
  2. by practicing it a lot
  3. because we do it in pair we can help each other

Because we practiced a lot, we can experiment in the presentation on stage with the interaction with the audience.

In this particular case, Joppe had an important Latin test, so we experimented with integrating a presentation we both knew, inside a presentation I had. This way, we only had to (re) practice the 15 minute talk inside my larger talk...

As part of the practice rounds, we also tried out multiple interactions. Who would talk at what slide...

If you trust each other enough, you can even fake a discussion or a fight. Which can make your audience think harder about a problem...

We haven’t done this, but letting Joppe take the role of a command and control bully, might be really interesting as I think our audience might at first be really in favor of a young speaker....

InfoQ: Can you explain why someone might use experiments in organizational change?

Joppe: As I have never worked, I don’t know much about organizational change, yet for me, live is all about experiments, or better, life is an experiment.

Yves: Isn’t this a wonderful answer? I think Joppe is right, life is all about experiments, unfortunately larger organizations seem to have forgotten this. One of the advantages of growing from a small company into a larger organization, is you can do things more efficient. Unfortunately a lot of organizations are so focused on (dare I say obsessed with) efficiency, that they forget about running experiments. Experiments are focusing more on being effective. For me, a big part of changing organizations is doing experiments so they can find what is most effective in their context.

InfoQ: To experiment you need a safe environment. How do you know if you are in safe environment?

Joppe: You are in safe environment if you can trust everyone.

Yves: I agree, unfortunately that does not help us much, because how do you know if you can trust everyone? At our talk we asked the audience if it was a save environment; by asking them we make ourselves vulnerable, hence trusting them, which makes it safer.

InfoQ: What if the environment isn’t safe to experiment? What can you do to make it safer?

Yves: Great question. You can’t really make the environment more safe. One of the biggest drawbacks of an unsafe environment, is that people will hide their mistakes and as a results the environment will become even less safe. If we want to go in the opposite direction we need to be more transparent, yet being transparent in an unsafe environment is very risky. What you can do, is making your steps smaller.

Joppe: Yes and so that when you fail, your failures are smaller and thus easier to fix. By doing that, we create trust.

InfoQ: Can you give a personal example where you learned from failure? What went wrong and how did you learn?

Joppe: Every day I go to school by bike. There is one annoying hill where it’s really hard to get on another road. The first few times I either fell, or had to step off. By practicing every day, I learned what is the correct speed to avoid falling.

Yves: I love this example, since a month I’m now also cycling to the train station and I have to pass that exact same point. I was already able to drive up the hill, but I can’t do it yet in a predictable way. Although I prefer not to fall on my way to work, I love the fact that it’s a small challenge that allows me to practice every day. Allowing me to fail without feeling a failure.

InfoQ: Together you did the closing keynote at AgileEE as a pair. What made you decide to do it as a pair?

Joppe: A few months ago, my school was at strike on the exact same day my father had to give a presentation. He asked if I wanted to come along. I said yes.

Yves: His youthful enthusiasm to follow an English conference, made me ask him if he was interested in joining me on stage. The look in his eyes said it all.

We worked really hard on it and found out that doing it together made the presentation better then when I would have done it alone. As a result our presentation at Failing.Fwd was a big success.

Joppe: I even received a standing ovation.

Yves: A well deserved one if you ask me. And when AgileEE was looking for someone to do a closing keynote on a Saturday, it felt very logical to do it again together.

As a parent, it’s really nice to work with my son. When I was 30 years old, I paired up with my father creating our famous leadership game. It was one of the most wonderful experiences in my life. As a father, I have always been looking for similar opportunities with my children.

InfoQ: Can you give some examples of how you can do pairworking?

Joppe: At my previous school only few of my tasks were done in pairs.

Yves: If I compare what Joppe needed to do in pair or in groups at school, with how little opportunity I had to collaborate when I was in school, I’m happily surprised. In my time working together was called cheating. Once you come into the world of (knowledge) work, collaboration is really key. Personally I think that the value I bring is so much bigger when I work with other people.

As for examples, I don’t think there are many kinds of work, where you can’t pair up with someone else. Even high up in a company, you see that larger corporations have a CEO and a president of the board of directors. You can do pingpong pairing like we do the dialogue in our presentation.

InfoQ: What are the possible benefits for the audience if presenters pair up?

Joppe: in a pair presentation you can have a dialogue. The style we used was question answers.

Yves: When I give a presentation, I always try to think what are the questions the audience asks themselves, in such a dialogue, we can make these questions much more visible. On top of that, this makes the flow of the talk much more fluent. And maybe most important, as a lone presenter, you always have the risk you have a bad day, the chance that both presenters have a bad day on the same day, is a lot lower. Oh and pair presentations are always better prepared. It’s just impossible to do a pair presentation without preparation.

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