Saturday, 2 April 2016

Lightning Talks for Knowledge Sharing

The end of March is the halfway point of the financial year in my organisation. It's also the time of mid-year reviews. I don't place much emphasis on the review process that is dictated, but I do see this milestone as a great opportunity to reflect on what I've learned in the past six months and reassess what I'd like to achieve in the remainder of the year.

I wanted to encourage the testers in my team to undertake this same reflection and assessment. I was also very curious about what they would identify as having learned themselves in the past six months. I wanted to see where people were focusing their self-development time and understand what they had achieved.

Then I thought that if I was curious about what everyone was doing, perhaps the testers would feel the same way about each other. So I started to think about how we could effectively share what had been learned by everyone across the team, without overloading people with information.

One of the main facets of my role as a Testing Coach is to facilitate knowledge sharing. I like to experiment with different ways of propagating information like our pairing experiment, coding dojos, and internal testing conference. None of these felt quite right for what I wanted to achieve this time around. I decided to try a testing team lightning talks session.

I was first exposed to the idea of lightning talks at Let's Test Oz. The organisers called for speakers who would stand up and talk for up to five minutes on a topic of their choice. A couple of my colleagues took up this challenge and I saw first-hand the satisfaction they had from doing so. I also observed that the lightning talk format created a one hour session that was diverse, dynamic and fun.

So in December last year I started to warn the testers that at the end of March they would be asked to deliver a five minute lightning talk on something that they had learned in the past six months. This felt like a good way to enforce some reflection and spread the results of this across the team.

I scheduled a half day in our calendars and booked a large meeting room. Three weeks out from the event I asked each tester to commit to a title for their talk along with a single sentence that described what they would speak about. I was really impressed by the diversity of topics that emerged, which reflected the diversity of activities in our testing roles.

One week ahead I asked those who wished to use PowerPoint slides to submit them so that I could create collated presentations. Only about half of the speakers chose to use slides, which I found a little surprising but this helped create some variety in presentation styles.

Then the day prior I finalised catering for afternoon tea and borrowed a set of 'traffic lights' from our internal ToastMasters club so that each presenter would know how long they had spoken for.

On the day itself, 27 testers delivered lightning talks. 

The programme was structured into three sessions, each with nine speakers, that were scheduled for one hour. This meant that there was approximately 50 minutes of talks, then a 10 minute break, repeated three times.

Having so many people present in such a short space of time meant that there was no time for boredom. I found the variety engaging and the succinct length kept me focused on each individual presentation. I also discovered a number of things that I am now curious to learn more about myself!

There were some very nervous presenters. To alleviate some of the stress, the audience was restricted to only the testing team and a handful of interested managers. I tried to keep the tone of the afternoon relaxed. I acted as MC and operated the lights to indicate how long people had been speaking for, keeping both tasks quite informal. 

There was also a good last minute decision to put an animated image of people applauding in the PowerPoint deck so that it would display between each speaker. This reminded people to recognise each presenter and got a few giggles from the audience.

After the talks finished, I asked the audience to vote on their favourite topic and favourite speaker of the day. I also asked for some input into our team plan for the next six months with particular focus on the topics that people were interested in learning more about. Though I could sense that people were tired, it felt like good timing to request this information and I had a lot of feedback that was relatively cohesive.

Since the session I've had a lot of positive comments from the testers who participated that it was a very interesting way to discover what their peers in other teams had been learning about. I was also pleased to hear from some of those who were most reluctant to participate that many of their fears were unfounded. 

From a coaching perspective, I was really proud to see how people responded to the challenge of reflecting on their own progress, identifying a piece of learning that they could articulate to others in a short amount of time, then standing up and delivering an effective presentation.

I'll definitely be using the lightning talks format for knowledge sharing again.


  1. Why is so much emphasis on learning in midyear review?

    1. I think it's a nice checkpoint to make sure that you're on track to achieve the goals you set for yourself for the year. It serves as either a wake up call if you haven't done what you wanted to or an opportunity to recognise your success so far.