Taming chaos in the online world - remote Event Storming in practice

Event Storming is primarily based on getting the right people together and putting them in one room for the day. It was the timing and location that was the foundation of this workshop, giving participants room for often heated discussions. However, with the rise in popularity of remote working and the move to the online world, the question becomes, "Does remote Event Storming make sense?"  Are there ways that we can run the workshop as effectively as the offline version? By all means! 

A few words of introduction

Event Storming is a workshop method proposed by Alberto Brandolini that allows you to discover and model processes that occur in business domains. Using an accessible notation, it shows how to describe the process of a particular system. The whole process is supervised by a facilitator who takes care of the course of the workshop and fosters the participants' involvement.

In this article, I will share some proven methods to make your remote storming more effective.

But let's start with the challenges that remote Event Storming organizers face.

Remote Workshop Problems

Parallel discussions

During a remote workshop, parallel conversations between participants are not allowed to happen. Only one conversation will take place at a time. This is a huge loss for Event Storming. You have to accept that some conversations will never happen, and as a result, you will lose valuable information. In turn, some less relevant conversations will take place at the expense of those that could actually prove valuable to the workshop.

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Full engagement

Full engagement is achieved when you and your participants are in the same room. The pressure of your colleagues, the lack of distractions, and to some extent, the competition will make you completely committed to the workshop. Unfortunately, you won't get this effect if each participant is in a different place. 

Real human contact

A webcam image will not give you as much information as an analysis (even subconscious) of a person's body language. In person, it is easier to recognize thoughtfulness, anger, or embarrassment. 

Each of these pieces of information is extremely valuable. Local sessions allow you to target and resolve participants' issues more quickly.

In an offline workshop, you also have the opportunity to approach a specific person or group and start a discussion just with them.

All-day sessions

You will have a hard time getting your coworkers to sit at the computer for 6-8 hours. I assume you wouldn't be able to stand in one position for that long yourself.

Pace

In order to prepare a remote storming session that will bring the most benefit to participants, you are somewhat forced to create numerous workshop groups. As a result, the pace of the session can drop dramatically - you are unable to lead multiple online discussions simultaneously. Do you have to accept this? In the next part of this article I will look at this issue in more detail.

Distractors

When organizing a local workshop, you can physically remove anything distracting from the room. You can also ask participants to leave their phones on the desk in the corner of the room. With remote sessions, you have no control over the open tabs in participants' browsers or the conditions in which they will be working.

So how do we prepare a workshop so that, despite potential difficulties, it gives us the intended results?

Workshop preparation

Invite the right people

Not being constrained by a physical conference room can be tempting to invite too large a group, which is harder to control. Additionally, when Event Storming is conducted online, smaller discussion groups will not form - the person speaking will be heard by all participants, which can sometimes cause chaos.

First, think of people who have business knowledge of the process you want to analyze. Then invite people who use the mechanisms that will be explored.

Schedule short sessions

During remote sessions, it is much more difficult to maintain focus for long periods of time. Each participant is using their own computer, so at any moment their attention can be diverted to a new email or...a cat meme. So plan your sessions so that they don't last too long.

Dr. Travis Bradberry in his book "Emotional Intelligence 2.0" describes that the ideal ratio is 52 minutes of continuous work and 17 minutes of rest. So if you plan sessions longer than an hour, don't forget to arrange a break for a breather. In my case, an effective online workshop takes about 2-2.5 hours with one break. I also try not to plan more than two sessions on the same day.

Set a goal

Stationary Event Storming is so effective that we can come out of it with many valuable conclusions. The case is different with non-stationary storming, where the throughput of simultaneous explorations is always equal to 1. So the first and most important task will be to determine the purpose of the meeting. 

Remember that organizing a session is not an end in itself. Event Storming is a tool to solve certain problems (or make them visible). So think about what you want the outcome of the session to be, and what conclusions you want to leave your board with, and communicate that to the group attending the workshop.

Due to limited time, large online workshops require more focus on the goal. Think well about what the goal should be and what steps need to be taken to achieve it. It's a little easier with onsite sessions because of the multitude of simultaneous conversations. They allow the session to end with more interesting conclusions.

In the sessions I lead, I very often write down the goal on a dedicated piece of paper - mainly to remind myself every so often. If the session starts to go sideways, that's when I say, "Look, I don't think this is getting us any closer to achieving our goal. Why don't we park the problem and deal with it while we analyze the XYZ process." Often the participants' cursors wander to the card with the goal of the workshop ;)

Send invitations well in advance

Send out workshop invitations a few days before the event - so that participants have a chance to review the agenda, prepare the venue and tools, and follow connection instructions.

The level of detail in the instructions should be adapted to the level of knowledge and experience of the invited participants. If you are working with a group that has no experience in Event Storming, detailed instructions can be the key to understanding the idea of the workshop. In this case, you can turn a blind eye to the "Less is more" rule.

It's also a good idea to have a short introductory training session to make sure all participants are prepared for the storming session.

Inform about the tools

During one of my sessions, it became apparent that a key participant was just driving the car, but was going to listen to us and answer any questions. It quickly became apparent that this was the first time he had heard the phrase "Event Storming" and he had absolutely no idea that a computer was necessary.

To avoid these situations, warn participants about necessary tools such as:

  • laptop,
  • Miro (or other tool),
  • video-chat e.g. zoom.

Make sure everyone has the necessary access

Technical problems can effectively spoil the workshop atmosphere and consume a lot of valuable time. So make sure everyone has access to the necessary tools, and features such as the ability to view and edit the whiteboard on Miro. By taking care of technical issues in advance, you will avoid awkward situations and ensure your storming session runs smoothly. 

Prepare your workspace

Know your tool

Although Miro's interface is quite friendly, I encourage you to test this tool well before your meeting. Make sure you have the right subscription plan that allows you to use all the options you need. Test the features you'd like to use, and make sure you can add, modify, and delete cards.

Remember, if attendees have trouble using the app, you're the one they'll direct questions to, so becoming familiar with this tool is crucial to an effective storming session.

As I mentioned earlier, there is limited time to conduct an effective workshop and it is not worth wasting it on these types of problems.

Prepare two monitors

Stationary Event Storming allows you to infer a lot from the facial expressions and behavior of participants. You can easily observe if people are bored, have completed a task, or are not engaging. Online workshops make such observations difficult, so as a substitute for face-to-face contact, let the visible faces in webcams be your guide.

So prepare two monitors and on one of them display images from the participants' cameras. On the other, of course, display the whiteboard on which you are working.

Change the default Miro settings

Disable the "snapobjects" and "show grid" functions.

While evenly stacked cards may look neat, they don't get you any closer to your goal. The "snapobjects" option enabled by default encourages you to keep things tidy, so I suggest turning it off right away. Don't waste time and energy aligning objects in an even line. The most important thing in Event Storming is to know your process and that's what you should focus on.

Enable the collaborators cursors feature.

I recommend enabling the "collaborators cursors" option so that you always see the cursors of the participants. This will make it easy for you to see what they are currently working on.

Start of workshop

Ask for cameras to be turned on

If everyone doesn't have their webcams on yet, this is a good time to remind them of it. We are about to move on to the workshop and want to get the organizational issues behind us. Someone may ask if they need to turn on their camcorder. The answer is always, "Yes, it's necessary!"

Inform about the virtual whiteboard interface

In my experience, the Miro interface is not obvious to everyone. Sometimes during sessions, there were questions about basic Miro functions, such as how to edit text on cards.

If your invitees include people who are interacting with Miro for the first time, take 5 minutes to walk them through the interface. Show them how to perform all the actions that they are about to have to do one-on-one.

To make sure everyone understands Miro's activity, ask participants to use post-it notes and write a brief note about themselves.

Lead participants in for each stage

Try to describe each stage of the session in detail. Explain exactly how the current phase of the workshop will take place, what its purpose is and what you expect from the participants. Make sure everyone knows what to do. In a remote session, it is more difficult to catch participants' problems. So try to keep the number of mistakes to an absolute minimum. I write down participants' problems in a private notebook after each online session so that I can pay more attention to them in the next workshop.

Also, remind everyone again what the purpose of the workshop is - it may not be obvious to everyone. If you see that the objective might be misunderstood, try to give a little insight into its genesis.

Don't be afraid to openly ask participants if they have any questions or concerns. Try to maintain a friendly atmosphere so that participants are more likely to raise their concerns. Do not ignore or trivialize any question.

Set the clock

If you are giving participants a task (such as chaotic exploration), I suggest setting a timer. This should get everyone into an intense focus mode.

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When you see new cards popping up all the time during your chaotic exploration, but time is running out, you can add a few extra minutes.

Choose a process

During a remote workshop, it is impossible to model all processes at once. It will be necessary to choose one. I suggest you take one of the most critical processes or one that generates the most problems.

You can also list all the processes and vote on which one you will explore first.

The Workshop

Introduce structure

My experience has been that chaotic exploration in online storming is more effective when we set limits on exploration.

If I have the opportunity, I try to stick cards that start and end the process. This gives the participants a clear framework in which to move. This prevents the session from spilling over into other processes that are not important at that moment.

Sometimes, when I don't know the boundaries of a process, I pick a few key processes from the middle. When looking for these, I usually try to target events that irreversibly change the state of the system (e.g. a reservation becomes an order) or those without which my process simply could not exist.

If you can't track these types of events, then see if the "Temporal Milestones" method (which involves dividing the space into time periods, e.g. month/week/day before, day after, etc.) would work better.

There are two sides to every coin, so in this case, the introduction of structure comes with some losses for the workshop. A pre-imposed structure will make it almost impossible to question the current understanding of the process. Imposed constraints may cause participants to accept them as truths and not attempt to challenge them.

Put the pressure on

As I mentioned earlier, it's hard to be fully focused and motivated when all the participants are deployed in their homes. The pressure and competition disappear almost completely.

Using different colored cards for each person will help to heat up the competitive atmosphere a bit, increase the pressure and motivate those less committed participants.

Later, when arranging the cards into a common process, you should change the cards to orange, so that they do not create confusion in the subsequent stages of storming. It is best to wait for the color change until the last moment. For example, you can do it after the process verification.

Alternatively, you can use private rooms for each participant. This will motivate them even more. A side effect of this, however, is that participants will not be able to inspire each other with their work. For some people, this will be an advantage, for others a disadvantage. Test what works better in your case.

Remember about the key

Remote sessions will require you to be a little more focused on the key. In a local workshop, lost participants can always ask the facilitator again about the meaning of a particular card. During a remote session, however, they may not want to focus the whole group's attention on themselves. You must therefore describe the meaning of each card in detail. Examples will also be very valuable. Just as in the case of local workshops, introduce the notation gradually - so as not to overwhelm beginners.

Thus, the key will be a substitute for a facilitator ready to answer any questions about the notation of the workshop.

Prepare multi-channel communications

In order to speed up the exploration process, you can use communicators that support multi-channel communication such as Breakoutroom in Zoom. Your task will be to deploy the participants well - so that they are able to provide quality knowledge about the analyzed part of the process.

Multi-room communication can work well with the imposed structure I suggested earlier. You can select domain experts so that they can focus on modeling the part of the process closest to them.

Additionally

Be well rested

Event Storming is exhausting, especially for a facilitator. It is even more difficult for remote workshops because more things can go wrong. It is the responsibility of the facilitator to ensure that the workshop does not turn out to be another fruitless meeting.

So be in good shape mentally as well as physically. Get a good night's sleep, eat a healthy meal, and get some fresh air.

Work standing up

Working at a desk doesn't have to be sedentary at all. Alberto Brandolini suggests that you work standing up during the workshop, as this will have a positive effect on your engagement. Of course, you can ask the participants to do the same.

Get rid of distractions

Try to get rid of anything that might steal your attention at an unexpected moment. Turn off your email, instant messaging, and social media. Ideally, you should mute all notifications for the duration of the workshop.

Ask participants to do the same. Of course, you have no influence on whether they will listen to you, but maybe some of them will, which will have a significant impact on the overall level of engagement of the group.

Take care of your workshop

Remote workshops are difficult, and the number of potential problems is overwhelming. As a result, it is easy to stumble. After each workshop, write down in a notebook the problems you (or participants) faced and what you can improve.

Remote Event Storming Capabilities

We have analyzed the challenges faced by a remote Storming event leader, answered the questions on how to conduct an online workshop to be valuable and effective. It is high time to put the icing on the remote event storming cake - the opportunities that this form of conducting training sessions provides us with.  

Visualization

It is very easy to visualize solutions on Miro. You can show a form, an example solution or illustrate your thought with a simple drawing in a matter of seconds.

To make sure your process is complete, try running a simulation. Prepare a few instances that your mechanism is supposed to react to and visualize them with simple drawings or diagrams. Then walk through all the events while modifying the virtual state of your application. This method will allow you to verify how your mechanism behaves under different circumstances. In Miro, this will literally take a few seconds.

Copying

On a live board, you can't physically clone cards and model alternative paths. On a virtual board, you can do that in two seconds.

During a session, you may come up with several ideas for solving a certain problem. In such a situation, you may want to divide the participants into independent groups to model their proposals. A remote workshop would require rewriting all the cards so that each group has its own copy. In this case, Miro wins because you only need to copy the cards.

Documentation

Miro allows you to export the result of the entire workshop as a photo or a PDF document. You can attach this file to your repository as an additional form of documentation.

Summary

What in my opinion may have the biggest impact on the outcome of the workshop is a completely different conversation dynamic. Discussions during remote workshops are no longer so random and there are far fewer of them.

The second biggest barrier is time. In my opinion, remote sessions are simply too short. Long breaks require engaging additional biological processor power to recover from the previous session.

Thus, an online Event Storming be just as effective as the one we've known so far? Yes, but only with the use of appropriate techniques. A well-prepared workshop, supported by an experienced facilitator, has a great chance to replace the classic approach and even achieve better results than its stationary older sibling.

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