Note: This exercise is probably the oldest one in my repertoire, preceding my software career. I first used it when I was running advocacy workshops with disenfranchised inner-city teenagers – a field of work not a million miles from the IT environments that many work in today… It needed almost no adaptation to work in Scrum training session sessions, just the recasting of some of the terminology.
A game to illustrate the beauty of self-organization – and the pain of ‘expert’ management.
Create a tangled knot of 8-10 people through a process of crisscrossed hand-holding. It feels awkward and uncomfortable. The other participants act as analysts, managers and observers. A vision of an open circle is offered, with everyone standing comfortably, holding hands. A constraint is set that in order to reach that state the hand-holding must not cease. The set-up for eight people will look something like this.
Once the team have established the spaghetti format, appoint an analyst and a manager (or ask for a volunteers). The rest of the participants act as observers, and you should emphasize the importance of the observer role for giving feedback after the exercise.
The game proceeds in three stages:
- The analyst is asked to write a spec: a set of steps the team members have to take to resolve the problem. Team members do not move. You can offer the analyst a state-of-the-art analytical tool (a chair to stand on). After a while it will become clear this is hard to do. Maybe the first 2-3 steps will be written down. Allow a few minutes, expressing impatience. Fire the analyst. Employ a manager to direct the team.
- The manager is asked to give instructions to each team member, using the requirements document the analyst wrote (if they managed to do so). If no document, use well-known micro-management directives to tell people what to do. The team members will move if told, and only if told. Team members not instructed to move should wait their turn. Usually this will not result in a solution. Allow a few minutes. Fire the manager.
- (Of course) the team is asked to resolve the problem itself. What happens next is an almost text-book example of self-organization: a collaborative, reflective, emergent behavior occurs and the problem is quickly resolved.
Debrief in a way that is comfortable for you, but with a strong focus on how it felt to be a team member waiting to be told what to do. It is the feelings of frustration, irritation, boredom and waste that you’ll probably want to refer to at other times in the training. This is what Scrum helps to remove. There are many other Scrum learning moments in this exercise. Look out for them and allow the team to discuss when appropriate.
The exercise lasts between 10-20 minutes.
If you have a large group you may want to immediately follow this exercise by allowing everyone to experience the feeling of resolution through self-organization. Set up groups of eight and have them see how fast they can resolve the tangle. Look at what happens when impediments occur. How are they resolved?
I have used this exercise with up to ten people in a group, but even with that number it is almost too large for the group to be coherent, and sub-groups can start to be identified. Try it with very large groups, just to see what happens (dare to fail!) I’d be interested to hear the results.
If you are working in a culture where hand-holding isn’t comfortable, use short ropes or batons between team members.
This game has its origins in the theatre work of Augusto Boal.