The Agile Playground #3

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

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. (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.

8 responses to “The Agile Playground #3

  1. Very cool exercise! I may try this out with my team…

    thanks for sharing!

  2. Pingback: Learning through games « Agile Dreamer

  3. Hi Tobias! I have created a game that gave me some great results. It will be great if you could test it and give me your feedback 🙂


    • Hi Flavio. The game sounds interesting. It is actually quite similar to a game I played in Mary Poppendieck’s Lean class, but her objective was to show how specialization leads to constraints, and how those get removed when everyone is multi-skilled.

      My personal preference is to run games without props. I just want people to show up in themselves and use their minds and (especially) bodies to experience the values and principles being taught. So it is unlikely I’ll run this exercise, but others reading this may do.

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  6. In the past I might have shied away from such exercises but this would be fun and educational. I suspect the context and the coach make that possible. I particularly enjoyed the note comparing an IT environment to disenfranchised inner-city teenagers – spot on!

  7. Arrggghhhh Tobias I hadnt realised you had blogged on this exercise:) I learnt this from you on your CSM course and I have always used this exercise on my internal scrum courses.

    This always works well and I have run it with as few as 6 people although you do need to be very careful as with only 6 the “manager” and “analyst” maybe able to resolve it.

    All the points you make about what is observed I have also seen and you make the point about emergence which I discuss on the debrief as empiriscm which I discuss earlier in my session. It truely is a great exercise:)

    As an aside I was at the Glastonbury music festival earlier this year and got invited into a rain dance game in the green peace field, dont ask:) , the game ended with this execise albeit with about 40 people, did it resolve itself, not quite but about 36-37 people became untangled which I thought was quite impressive:)

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