The Agile Playground #1

Agile Playground Index: [AP#1] [AP#2] [AP#3]

This is the first post in an intended series which will describe some interactive games, with commentary.

Scrum offers a completely different way of thinking about the work we do, therefore it seems appropriate that we explore completely different ways of teaching it to people. Playing physical, interactive games is a compelling way of introducing the core Scrum principles to individuals and organizations.  When talking to (sometimes at) participants with or without slides or whiteboards the information is one-dimensional, and tends to be taken in at a head level.  Playing interactive, physical games provides a richer experience and allows knowledge to be embodied by the participants.

Head knowledge tends to coat the surface of our minds, and it quickly fades, whereas embodied knowledge penetrates deeper and tends to stick.  The games and exercises described in the Agile Playground posts are all physical and interactive, and lend themselves to an increased awareness of Agile principals. The set of games described here are as a rough guide only, an introduction to the concept of game-playing for Agile learning purposes.  It is advisable to experiment with these games in a safe, supportive environment such as Open Space before applying them for training purposes.  It is necessary to understand the games for yourself, to appreciate the learning value, to really feel them, before offering them to others.

I see Agile games falling into two categories: 1) prescriptive games where the outcome is known by the facilitator and the game is guided towards that outcome, or 2) open games where the outcome is often unknown and the game takes on a life of its own, with participants drawing out meaning themselves.  It is the latter set of games that I am more interested in.

Go — a game for illustrating the Agile mindset
aka “Your Brain on Scrum”

Instructions Have your participants stand in a circle, evenly spaced.  Introduce the game like this: I shall point at someone; when I point the person will tell me to go, so I’ll walk over to take his space.  In order to take the space the person has to leave it, and the only way to leave your space is to point at someone else. When you point the new person will tell you to go, so you’ll walk over to take his space. And so on.  This will be a continuous exercise with no obvious end point. The game will find its own conclusion.

What Happens? At first the participants will really struggle with this.  They point and say Go , or when being pointed at they leave their space without saying Go, before realizing there is no new place to go to.  It is necessary to stop the game and restate the rules a couple of time. Other behaviors that occur include moving quickly and getting to your new place before the person who said Go has left it, and failure to pay attention thus not being aware when someone point at you.  After two or three stops, and a clarification of the requirements, the game is played smoothly and you can start to build up speed.

Additional Notes 1 I added these notes after witnessing the game being played and somewhat  misunderstood.  This is NOT altogether an open game, there is a very deliberate learning outcome… the recognition that Scrum is simple, but it is not easy.  I learned this game from Improv artist/actor Matt Smith.  Matt uses it to show the mindset shift needed to embrace improv ideas. Scrum requires a similar mindset shift (a paradigm shift if you like).  Go! illustrates the pain that comes with this shift.  It is difficult, but it can be overcome.  We need to re-train our minds to think differently about what we do. Ask people early on in this game why they are screwing up a game that has only (essentially) 3 rules.  What is going on… why is it so hard?  Help participants understand that the difficulties arise when they have to change ingrained patterns.  Scrum is simple, but it isn’t easy.

Variations After running the standard game for a while, try out some alternatives.  Replace the pointing gesture with one of an open hand.  This feels like more of a request than a command. Have no gesture, just use eye contact to give permission.  Play without permission at all, just walk to where you want to go and trust that the space will become available. 

Additional Notes 2 Go! can develop into a game about flow, patterns, respect, listening, team-awareness and all kinds of other good things.  But beware.  Mixing up many learning outcomes in one game can be confusing.  I recommend using Go! in its simplest form to illustrate the mind shift required to do Scrum.  Pick the game up again later in the session, (using looks, head-nods, etc.) to focus on the patterns/flow part of teamwork.  Or use a different game.

Debrief Explain that the Agile mindset is utterly different to a traditional mindset, and ask how the game gets that message across.  The participants have a lot to say, so listen and learn.  Some of the discussion centers around the importance of team work, and being aware of the needs of others .  Other times it will focus more on the difficulty of changing the way we typically do things.  If you have used and variations have the participants discuss the different dynamics.

Additional Notes 3 Having written this game, and then seen it played reminds me how hard it is to write these games down, for reproduction.  There is a great deal of skill required to run a game successfully, to notice the learning opportunities and seize them appropriately, without being overly prescriptive.  So again, please use these games with great care — and be prepared to acknowledge your own failure, and improve as a result.

16 responses to “The Agile Playground #1

  1. Tobias,

    Thanks for sharing how to play this game. I was interested to try playing the Go game in the session you ran at Agile Coaches Gathering.

    I found it took a lot of concentration to play – it feels stressful to be pointed at and at the same time have to react immediately according to a formula with everyone waiting on me to respond. I also don’t like giving verbal commands and pointing at others so it felt very odd to do. I’m not sure it taught me a lot about Scrum. I’ve been using Agile for 10 years now and it felt very command and control. So I’m not sure it sets the right tone for a team about to start Scrum.


    • Hi Rachel,
      > felt very command and control
      The game’s main intent is to illustrate the mind shift required to become a ScrumMaster. Change is painful. The pointing becomes a request; it goes from “You, do this” to “how can I help you”. Far from being command and control it is about making powerful requests and getting helpful responses. No one is in charge.

  2. Yes, Tobias, I understand the intent of the game and agree that no one person is in charge in this game. I felt it was like command and control because everyone is being asked to give directions to each other. I simply don’t like giving directions to people. I would never point at someone, or say “Go!” to them. Both acts feel uncomfortable even when combined as request/response and to me not at all like the feeling on a Scrum team.

    • The game is not intended to give the feeling of being on a Scrum team. It simply illustrates the difficulty of changing deeply-embedded behaviors based on old assumptions. Scrum asks you to do that, and it is important to experience such pain, and acknowledge it in a safe setting.

      When the game is extended to use open-hand gestures and nods of the head the dynamic is very different and you feel the request/response clearly. But to start this way utterly defeats the purpose of the game.

      That you felt uncomfortable is possibly a good thing, and maybe worth exploring. At the current time this is clearly not an exercise that works for you or that you will run, and that is okay 🙂 I have other ones to share.

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  4. Very interesting. I love the idea of teaching with games, and you & Lyssa’s game that we played, Help Me Understand, really left an impression on me.

    I am intrigued by this notion of games that take on a life of their own, and way looking forward to reading more of these!

    Although, now I’m going to have to ask you about that advice you gave me about sharing games… 🙂

    • Hi Abby, yes it seems contradictory doesn’t it? I am continually getting requests from people to write some of these games up, and have held back a long time from doing so. You’ll notice I added this warning: “It is advisable to experiment with these games in a safe, supportive environment…” There are still games I will not post, because they just don’t lend themselves to clear write-ups — they are deep in the region of games where I don’t know what the outcome will be. If you post your game, make sure you have control of it so you can tweak it later — or even pull it down. If you submit to one of the games websites you’ll lose that control.

      • Thanks, Tobias,

        I’ll point Nate here. And, anyway, glad you’re sharing them because I think they’re useful things we can do on our own teams. I’d love to hear more about how you come up with them as well. They seem completely non-intuitive to me and my programmer everything-must-be-super-logical illogical brain 😉 But I want to learn.


  5. Abby, most of the games I use were not inventions, rather they are discoveries. I pull ideas from Improv and Boal mainly, but other places too, and then adapt them to suit my needs of being an Agile facilitator. And they change over time. The Go game has lots of variations now, which mostly emerged from the participants. Other variations of Go teach different Agile principles and values. It is always a journey 🙂

  6. Thanks for sharing this one, Tobais. I must admit even when we tried this at the conference it didn’t resonate with me, but I really appreciate your being prepared to share any of your games. I’m looking forward to more.

  7. I got a chance to play this yesterday at the informal CST gathering after the Munich Scrum Gathering. I found a good, quick game. As is often the case, the learning points are subtle and require a mindful facilitator. Thanks for sharing this, T.

  8. Thanks Tobias for writing down this game. I did play this game in my CSM training with you. I still remember the difficulties I had pointing and waiting for someone else to say go. It feels that you wish to direct but you wait for someone else to understand the unstated directions. It’s more of coaching than directing. I definetly plan to try this game with my team.

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  11. Hi Tobias,

    Just wanted to let you know I used this game, again, just today. It seemed the company group I was training was so stepped in a command-and-control culture that I just had to do more exercises than usual in order to break up that ground. I actually came to your blog looking for your instructions for spaghetti (I’ve been doing it slightly differently), and then I saw Go! and was reminded how good that game was. I tried it again and it was perfect for the group.

    Thank you for taking the time to document these and share with the community.

    With Much Appreciation,

    • Thanks Scott. Good of you to let me know. I continue to find this a powerful tool for exposing, and even shaking out old (bad) habits.

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