It was not a conference!

2019 Scrum Exchange Review

A new year means a fresh beginning. For me, it provides something of a clean slate. A sense of optimism. It’s a chance to pause, reflect, and course correct. It’s forward-looking.

At the start of this year, I made a commitment to myself to focus on my own personal and professional development with a renewed sense of curiosity and vigour – I quickly found Tobias Mayer’s Scrum Master Journey programme and a vibrant community of human beings committed to, well, just being better.

So far, this journey has taken me to various and often obscure parts of our great capital. I have had the honour of interacting with an amazingly diverse group of people and have benefited hugely from the varying perspectives and skills that each person has offered. People’s willingness to be vulnerable in these settings has quite often taken me by surprise – as has my own. The Scrum Exchange event I recently participated in as part of this journey was no exception.

As I travelled to London by train, I have to confess that I doubted the organiser’s claims that ‘this is not a conference’. “Okay” I thought, “so there are ‘no name badges, no tracks, no keynotes, no superstars, no leaders, no pre-ordered corporate lunches, and no product promotion or sponsorship’, but how different can this event be really?”

Well, as it turns out, it was different in every possible way. Gloriously different.

The location was the upstairs rehearsal space of The Nursery Theatre – a space where artists and performers explore improv. In stark contrast to the neighbouring Shard, the space was informal, chaotic even. A series of brightly coloured rooms – some faded. A ‘no frills’ space where it is wise to check the integrity of a chair before you sit down. Where the blinds hang loosely off of the windows. A place offering great views of the city.

Thirty or so people gathered in this space, Tobias, having thanked everyone for coming, set a few boundaries for the day, and then lots of cool stuff… well…just happened.

First, as a lighthearted icebreaker, this group of thirty or so people managed to quickly and accurately arrange themselves in alphabetical order (by name). No direction was required. A young woman in the group then displayed her amazing ability to recall the names of almost everyone in the circle.   

Group self-generating an agenda at the nonference

Next, the group effortlessly self-organised to create the agenda for the ‘nonference’. A large number of interesting sessions were planned across the day – each timebox offered a choice of four distinct offerings brought to the group by the participants themselves. And so it began.

During the day I enjoyed a workshop that centred around Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ – storytime followed by a discussion around how the messages within this tale are still relevant today – the inherent danger of pride and ego, self-doubt, and manipulation. Oppression. The importance of relying on empirical data as a sound basis for decision making.

The group used the ‘fishbowl’ liberating structure to debate the meaning and intent behind the phrase ‘Happy Scrumming’. The group discussed such questions as ‘is it even our job to make people happy?’ ‘Why is this term being used in a derogatory sense?’ And ‘what does happiness actually mean in this context?’. I’m not sure if we arrived at an answer to these questions, but it certainly gave pause for thought.

Other sessions explored how ScrumMasters can skillfully navigate situations where emotions are high – without becoming an ‘emotional Scrumbag’. A small group imagined what the school of the future would look like. And, we were able to quickly leverage the collective expertise, skills, and talents of a diverse group of people to come up with a game to help participants appreciate the value in breaking away from convention to unlock previously unseen possibilities in innovation.

During the train ride home I realised that the power of skilful facilitation had displayed itself very clearly on this day. My appreciation for diversity; diversity in thinking, culture, background, and how we experience the world deepened enormously. I felt lighter understanding that it is okay to admit to not having all the answers and fortunate that I found this courageous community.

I was able to accept that, indeed, this was not a conference 🙂


Go to the profile of Paul Marshall

‘I help teams re-frame how they think about product development.’

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