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How to conduct knowledge exchange between companies beyond only seeing each other's nice offices
A guide to making it an valuable experience for both parties.
This article was originally published on Medium.com on Oct 4, 2016 and was slightly re-edited for better expierence and voiceover for this Substack publication.
As an Agile Coach (AC) or a Scrum Master (SM), there are times where you go around in circles working in the same context. Trainings or conferences you attend might not give you the edge you need to achieve the extraordinary or “boldly go were no man has gone before”. Moving to another company is not always the solution either.
There is something else that gives you a safe net and experience that no other popular form will — an exchange. I call it “Agile Coaches exchange programme” which I revitalised at Allegro Group in 2016. It will let you push things to another level. Let me explain how.
Warsaw, Stockholm, Paris
Developers have hackatons and AC / SM have coach camps. Yet the latter are still theoretical discussions or case studies filtered by the speaker. You get one story and don’t see the context behind it. It’s valuable to a certain extent — same as this article.
The idea of visiting each other’s companies is probably not new yet it’s mostly done in a way where people go round the corridors seeing the working environment asking few questions on the go. It takes around 2–3 hours at maximum.
What I am describing here is an immersion programme where you can dive in to the situations and problems that a company faces. It’s done by spending a minimum of 1–2 days (or more if you prefer) together.
That includes internal meetings, team events, guild meetings, solving problems together. With such an intention, together with my colleagues, we visited Spotify in Stockholm and BlaBlaCar in Paris. We also hosted BlaBlaCar in our offices. Earlier on, we arranged similar meetings with few other companies in Poland. Below you can find things that I and some of us learned.
How to prepare to avoid the superficial
The exchange involves travelling (doh!). Depending on how you want to arrange things — you can first host and then be hosted or do an exchange in one place with some space for both parties to share. Personally, I would say that the former option is the most fruitful one. You first share your context and then get to know the other company’s (I will call them “partner”) environment when they host you. You can shadow them at work or even run some of the meetings.
The preparations can take months and begin with reaching out to each other as well as being patient and consequent in your actions. Here’s how I do it:
1. Understanding the intention
It’s crucial that both sides understand the intention behind the idea.
It is sharing knowledge, practices, experience and failures as well as just helping each other to better as people, servant leaders, teams and companies in a world where change is inevitable.
It is not a new way of recruiting to your company, using others knowledge to build advantage against them, sharing (without consent) those information outside of your agreement, providing free training for your staff, free holidays, only taking without giving etc. When you host you don’t cover your partners hotel or travel expenses. It’s rather obvious but I wanted to make it clear.
2. Reaching out
The start is always similar — reaching out to each other. It can be spontaneous or planned.
Spontaneous can happen on a conference, workshop or any other place where you can meet, establish a rapport and talk. I go with my gut feeling in this scenerio. When I meet someone, the rapport is good, I can learn and have something to offer, I then suggest we exchange.
Planned happens when you have a company that you would like to visit but not sure where to start. It may involve reaching out to your network of in friends, colleagues, LinkedIn and looking for people that know someone in the desired organisation to make an introduction. This really works if you have a clear vision of what you want to achieve and don’t give up easily.
3. Meeting expectations
You will often see that the expectations you have and things you want to learn will differ between both parties at least a bit. That’s why I gather a list of things that, together with the exchange team, we would like to get to know and ask for a similar list from the partner. I do it prior to setting dates and other points to know if we can meet all or just some of the expectations. A sample list you can find below:
Working in remote teams — seeing an event when a team communicates remotely, tools you use to ease the communication looking at few teams while they work remotely, sharing challenges that arise.
Product & process — how do your teams choose how they work? What tools & techniques do you use? What is your workflow? How do PO, AC and management work together? If possible, seeing some of the meetings with people involved that help to answer these questions.
Openspace / Lean coffee — dedicated time for discussing problems, raising questions and other topics up for a discussion.
How do you manage dependencies and priorities within your products / projects? How do you measure and iterate on them?
How do you foster innovation and with what effect? How do you understand it? How do you measure and choose the measures?
Fuckups — around the world there are meetings called “fuckup nights” where people share their failures and lessons learnt. It’s hard but opens people and discussion to new, unchartered waters. Nothing breaks the ice better.. Just joking.
This point also answers the question: what can we share as a company and what we won’t share? There can always be some things that you just won’t share because you can’t. It’s a hush hush matter or something not yet ready for the outside world. It’s worth checking the legal stuff twice with different people before you decide. It also answers the question if your partner is going to shadow you, be involved in the meetings or even run some of them. These need not to be only team or group meetings but also 1–2–1 meetings with a PO or coaching (if you Client for the session agrees on that).
4. Arranging things
This is probably the most demanding part of the whole exchange as it can take a lot of time depending on how much support you have and how long is the exchange. It can involve:
Preparing the schedule — who, what, when? Do the teams, people agree to have visitors? How many people can participate in a meeting for it to be effective and not overwhelming? Can they participate in the discussion or just listen?
Presentations / stories — preparing some materials for discussion, presentations, stories, cases. Those that you want to share as well as some that you will have up your sleeve when the schedule dynamically changes.
This involves certain preparations (sometimes hours and hours), inviting other speakers, subject matter experts so it’s of value to your partner company.
NDA — some companies require people to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement to protect in their intellectual property in a more formal way. Depending on your legal departments efficiency as well as previous practices this can be easy or a pain in the.. neck.
Who can we invite? This involves the maximum number of people you can host at a time on an event, language of meetings you are going to use, technical proficiency and more. Basically, think about who your guests are. In terms of language, it won’t be a problem for truly international companies.
As for the number of people you can host, for instance, if you invite 4 Agile Coaches and one of your meetings is a daily for a team of 5 people then having 4 additional people in a the room might be overwhelming for the team and (probably) not practical. Maybe two daily’s happening at the same time would solve this? Food for thought.
Gifts — when visiting or hosting I always go with a small company gift for the partner. Best to keep it practical and ask beforehand if people are going to use that in order not to create more trash on the planet. Inviting people to a nice restaurant can be an alternative.
To my mind, what matters is the gesture you make not the size of it. Of course, just hosting is okay as well. Go with what you feel is right at the moment.
5. Meeting & sharing
When you go through all the preparations — congrats! The best is yet to come! Things and agenda may change. Bloopers happen not only on television. Be open and non-judgemental when you hear what others share. You might think this is not the right way or you could do it better. Instead concentrate on the context and ask follow up questions to better understand. You may surprise yourself. Being mindful is about being here and now which might be challenging when you’re hosting. Take notes! Ask when you want to take a photograph of something. Smile!
Outcome & lessons learnt
When an exchange is a success? For me it’s when the vibes are good, you can feel that energy flowing. It’s also when the knowledge that both sides share and gain is of value for them, when we learn something and solve something. If all of the above happen together — it’s perfect.
Those meetings can take various forms because it’s always a different mix of people, cultures and views. If you embark on the journey don’t compare your visits between each other. It does not make sense. What makes sense is looking at which formula works for you best. My takeaways from the exchanges I participated in helped me in (among others):
preparing a concept of innovation for the whole company as a mix of my ideas and those that I learned about,
testing new video conferencing system — seeing if it works better then our or not,
appreciating my journey in agile — what I’ve learned and place I’m currently in; that it’s always not that a rosy picture you in your company or the partner company.
fostering collaboration between various roles in my company — like more tight cooperation with Product Owners and Developers,
implementing few concepts of ways to organise one of the departments — like health check model and some new management 3.0. concepts,
getting to know myself better — what are my thoughts in new context, feedback from the guests on teams I work with or the company I currently work for.
gaining another perspective— answering various questions makes you think about the relevancy of the actions you take and if it all still makes sense, your positively thought provoked.
I think that the most important thing is that you should not look at your company through the lens of other companies. It’s great to get to know their practices but your environment is unique and so should be most of your solutions — tailored to what you really need. First answer the question — what problem are we trying to solve and then choose the options best suited or conduct an experiment.
As for lessons learnt and best practices:
don’t rush your guests — be prepared to adjust to changing schedule yet balace it with good time keeping,
adjust breaks between meetings — some prefer a tight schedule while others appreciate 5–10 min breaks, adjust to the needs of your partner,
leave at least 1–2h for discussion — a day packed with events and presentations might not leave time for ad hoc
reserve 1-1,5h for lunch — many discussions arise during the breaks and they can be cut short if there is too little time,
prepare well — maybe obvious but it will be appreciated,
make some time for short recap sessions — hosting guests is a great opportunity for the team that they are visiting and local Agile Coach to get some feedback from the guests about what they saw and what could be improved,
go for a beer — socialising in a more informal way after the exchange is a great team building time,
share with local community —if you’re travelling why not find a local meet-up group and suggest you could give a speech? That can let you meet great people and share the knowledge even further.
be open to the lenght — in Allegro we’ve done exchanges that lasted from 1 day to a week. Both have their pros and cons as well as have a different form.
ask for expectations of you when you’re visiting — should you feedback the team? take part in the conversations? note things that you see and share afterwards?
My thanks go to all our hosts from the companies we visited. Guys, thank you for your effort and making it such a wonderful experience!
My intention for creating this article is to spread the word around the world to, hopefully, inspire others to go beyond the normal grind. I would like to create a community where companies share, exchange and are not afraid to open themselves to others as well as their own failures. This is already happening in some places but I believe, collectively, we can still do better. This need not to concern Agile Coaches but other roles as well. I strongly believe this is the future of work. What’s your view on the idea? What did you like and what would you add or change?
Ideas for the future:
company to company roles mentorship where people pair on a mentor-student or partner-partner basis,
exchanging as a series of meetings throughout quarter or a longer period,
exchanging with companies not necessarily related to e-commerce or IT but also production companies etc.
open knowledge sharing sessions normally held internally e.g. Deep Work, agility practices in Machine Learning projects,
I will share some insights once I have tested the above.
🎈Share this post if you think it can help others to be more open and collaborative outside their own company.