Welcome to the new Outdoor Workshops!

We are in a pandemic, why do the people choose to come together inside? Why don’t they meet outside?

– Martin Tröster

This was the inspiration restarting and finally kicking off the plans I have since over a year now: outdoor workshops. Martin is a colleague and friend working on the Firmware written for the Hardware that I am verifying @the IBM Lab in Böblingen. And as all of us we haven’t seen each other in person since March.

We are using methods from Design Thinking and structures such as Liberating Structures to intensively collaborate and not only create new ideas but converge on new products, methods, user experiences. What would happen if we combine this with being outside in the nature and combine it with movement? There is enough research showing that both being in the nature and moving fosters creativity. Various senses are stimulated, we see, we hear, we feel and we smell. And moving inspires.  So doing workshops in the woods sounds like a great idea. These were thoughts I had in the beginning of the year? And then Covid-19 came around and we stopped seeing each other in person and stopped collaborating live.

The situation

We started creating interactive workshops applying enterprise design thinking methods and liberating structures in virtual formats.

However, I also miss the personal interaction with our colleagues. Employees joining the team without personally meeting their teammates. New teams started working together. And start collaborating and having a need to solve problems.

The idea

Whether there are new team members or there is an iteration 0 for a new project or there is a specific problem to solve or the quest a new idea for a new user experience is on – so why not have a workshop outside.

Soon enough like in other cases with new ideas I feel the urge to tell people so I told Sven Stüven and he knew Sarah Thalacker os working on Arbeitssicherheit in Ehningen and happened to write her master thesis about working outside. Of course Florian Leber, who did a lot on creating virtual interactive workshops was all in as well and we met on a Friday morning in August the lab to create a prototype.

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The (first) Prototype

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With flags, chalk spray, workshop bags, tape, post-its and Pens. We soon figured out that whiteboards reflect the sun and blinds the eyes. And we don’t want to do it in the parking lot – too hot and too uncomfortable. So we identified a building under deciduous trees, spending enough shade, where we thought we can do a four hours workshop. And we made the prototype – it turned out to be very playful to keep the distance. Handball has a half circle where only the goalie is allowed. When following the same paradigm for our workshop there are six positions from left to right in a distance of 2 meters. So that makes it a team to do design thinking! Only one is allowed to enter the “Kreisraum”. And we duplicated it by two to the other sides of the building to have two teams. We created a “Freiwurflinie” as well – an outer circle in 2 meters distance of the inner circle, placed another set of flags and the second team can join the first team in a safe distance for the playback! 

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We used the walls of an existing old garage, having the right color to not reflect the sunlight plus holding post-its reliably – perfect.
As soon as we started doing the prototype to create a video that demonstrates the concept to show the crisis management team for approval, it started raining. Of course we kept going, as we wanted to finish the prototype. So we tested, iterated until we were able to execute a fast-forward version of the workshop demonstrating the concept.

The (first) Outdoor Workshop

So I got back to Martin and said – I got a concept – we are ready to do a workshop. Martin had a new team member; Merve joined beginning in the beginning  of October. We found a date and a goal – to create a social contract within the Scrum team and define the mission and the goals for continuous integration of driver components which is one of the responsibilities in the scrum team.

October can be cold, but it is just a question of what clothes we wear – we thought. The night before the workshop we went back and forth, will it rain? We decided to do it.

Arriving at the site on October 13, we met and everything was different than in the prototype. The grass was wet and in a minute our feet were cold. Reflections of the sun were all of a sudden no problem anymore and the trees were contributing to make it feel even more wet instead of being able to catch the intermittent sunbeams coming through the dark clouds. Post its didn’t stick on the wall. So we adopted, got the whiteboard walls and now we had a lot more space since we were neither depending on the building nor the trees spending shade. Surprisingly, everything looked simpler than in the prototype. We asked everybody in advance to bring drinks, food and warm clothes so nobody had to freeze (at last that’s was what we were hoping).

Safety first 

Each member gets a workshop bag with his own Post-its, Pen and some drops. Everything was safely prepared 48 hours before the workshop.

We can ensure keeping the distance, so we don’t have to wear a mask, but given the increasing numbers of new infections, we decided to be on the safe side and wear masks all the time. We handed out safety sheets prepared by Sarah in a bag, also containing dedicated pen and sticky notes) and I did a safety introduction.

 The social contract

The team split up in two groups sticking their thoughts on the wall, merged it together and cluster. Everybody needs to keep their own pen but since paper is not a great carrier of the virus – it is ok to cluster post-its written by others. And discussed voted and converged on how they want to work together.

Turns out that everybody does start freezing standing in the cold in the wet grass most of the and the team went to lunch.

The team was a group of twelve and the idea was to work in two groups so that the team can efficiently work in parallel on two scenarios from the developers user perspective.

The As-Is-Scenario

After lunch the team started working on the as-is-scenario of the workflow from a developers perspective. 

The team worked in two groups on the two different scenarios in parallel and did a playback. We even had minimalistic chairs somebody could sit on if the feet were getting heavy.  Everybody was very active and keeping the distance entering and exiting the Strafraum really worked well.

Besides the underestimated cold, it becomes clear that from a distance, the post-its were very hard to read. However, everybody (one after another!) started moving to read them in the “Kreisraum”, so the inspiration from other stickies happened and the playbacks were very active

The Learning

After the playback everybody was a bit reliefed after the decision to continue in an online form using Mural. And left after leaving great feedback.

Coming back inside from the workshop I sat down and I felt like coming down from a mountain after a four hour trekking tour.

I learned a lot! After just doing a short prototype, you can’t project how it works over a longer period of time. Even 90 minutes is a bit long for people without a break especially in the cold. Feeling cold consumes a lot of attention drawn away from the creative process.

There are activities that are more efficient in a remote setup and there are activities where the personal interaction just add such a big value in collaboration.

And I am convinced more activities will help keeping the participants warm and will be inspirational!

Part 2: Online & Virtual

Asking people when they are cold whether they want to continue outside, you get the obvious answer. So we moved the second part of the workshop to work on the big ideas and the To-Be-Scenario and it turned out very creative. Everybody was exceptionally active and contributed. The team walked out with a converged view on how the most important ideas and what they wanted to achieve. 

The Participants

Merve, you just joined IBM and participated in the first outdoor workshop – what was your experience?

Merve Heyne photo

Merve Heyne

Z Software Engineer – CI/CD

“I was glad to be told beforehand that the workshop would be outside. So I decided to wear my warmest jacket and a warm scarf. This helped me to fight the cold for most of the time and meanwhile meet my colleagues. Most of the colleagues I didn’t see in person before due to the current Covid-19 situation/Home Office. So I didn’t know a lot about them except what I heard and maybe saw of them in our daily meetings.

The workshop was the perfect opportunity to meet them in Full HD with better sound and no bandwidth problems. It was nice to have in-person conversations, so when someone was laughing (yes – I consider my squad to be rather humorous) you could still understand someone else speaking. Unfortunately, this isn’t possible in digital meetings. So even with the cold distracting everyone, we had great conversations and I got more insight on how my individual Squad mates are thinking and how they express themselves. The loudest parts were when a person wanted to step in an already occupied “Strafraum”. It was fun to meet people in person, it adds another level to it. Warming up breaks would have made things more comfortable.

The Online session was more comfortable and definitely warmer but working with Mural also made the session a little less engaging. The walking to the board while keeping distance was missing, but drawing or searching pictures in Mural made up for it.

Overall, talking to new people outside their daily tasks is a great benefit to getting to know them and overcoming any communication barriers.

Apart from the benefits regarding the social aspect, it was really insightful regarding the technical aspect. I got a better image of what the bigger picture for the Squad is, what the tasks at hand are to achieve the goals and what those goals look like. It was nice to contribute to the process, which helped answering a lot of unanswered questions and added even more. But now the questions are deeper and more technical and I’m looking forward getting the answers in my future to come at IBM.”

Martin Tröster

Z Firmware – IBM Systems

Martin, what was the reason you decided to organize an outdoor workshop with your squad?

“Our squad just got created in the beginning of this year, shortly before the pandemic kicked in, and only after a few weeks everybody had to work remotely. So we did not have much time to meet in person until then. We also had two people leave the squad since then. So when Merve joined, I considered this was the perfect time and tool that allows us to meet in person while doing everything possible to stay safe.”

What do you think was the outcome for you and your squad?

“Sooner or later, everybody had cold feet, no matter how well prepared we came :slightly_smiling_face: But besides some bad luck with the weather: Having a meeting in person with all squad members to onboard Merve as our new hire was really helpful. Even more, we took the first hour to start creating a new social contract. Using design thinking helps a lot to get everybody’s opinion in, and I really prefer to do this in person. We had a good start working on our ‘mission’, which we are now continuing virtually using mural. Thanks Bodo for giving us the chance to be the first group using this new concept, and for the flexibility to adjust to our needs during the event!”

Thank you!

Thank you very much to the IBM zSeries Common Services Platform Team for being open to this experiment.

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I want to thank Sarah, Sven and Florian for this great collaboration! 

This is why I love to work @the IBM Lab!

Stay safe,


Everything is a prototype.


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