Playing at Work

Games That Deliver Value

Whoever claims that work has no room for play or play might not be a form of work may not know about the serious purpose of agile games. You can learn from games, use them to instigate change, innovate, and make product decisions. This week's column explores how Mary Gorman selects, plays, and designs games. Mary explains how games improve collaboration, deepen learning, and help teams focus on value delivery.

Imagine blowing up balloons to discover how to work with your customer to improve the quality of the product you're building. Recently, I led an agile team in doing just that-by playing 99 Test Balloons . [1] In this game the players are told to draw faces on the balloons. Only afterward do they learn about strict size and shape requirements for the facial features. During the first round of play, the room usually is strewn with rejected balloons.

And so it happened with the group I was helping. When I gave these players a chance to improve, they quickly adapted and delivered much better results. During the post-game retrospective, my team members smiled and shook their heads, remembering how many times in the past they had experienced similar challenges with acceptance criteria. They started planning how to adjust their project work to sharply reduce the number of errors found during testing.

Winning at Work
Playing a game gives people an opportunity to actively participate in unleashing creativity and generating new ideas. Think about it: You do your best work when you're in a creative environment and in " flow." [2] Moreover, we often learn best when we do, observe, discuss, and reflect on the outcomes of the experience. [3]

By any definition, an agile game is simple, adaptable, and quick to play. In the agile software development community, an agile game is also collaborative and provides value-it has a serious purpose. It can teach a specific agile concept leading to improved performance, as in 99 Test Balloons, or it can enable collaboratively exploring business needs, such as identifying new product concepts or prioritizing a project portfolio. [4]

Put simply, teaching games help make your learning stick, and doing-work games help you accomplish business goals.

What's Your Game?
How do you select an appropriate game? Start with the problem, challenge, or opportunity your team is facing. Here are three examples.

When a team needs to learn what drives customers to purchase a product, I often select the Product Box , [5] a fast-paced, doing-work game. Ideally, key customers are invited to play. (When that is not possible, team members act as surrogate customers.) In the first part of the game, the players use cardboard to build a product box that expresses the features and benefits that would compel them to buy the product. Then, each player "sells" his box to the other players.

This game gets people motivated and uncovers diverse-and sometimes conflicting-views of the product's features.

Suppose a team is considering using pair programming. The team could benefit from experiencing two people working together to build a product. As a trainer, I select PairDraw, [6] a teaching game. In the game's debrief, the players reflect on the experience of creating their own individual drawings in contrast to jointly creating a drawing. They talk about the impact of their pairing on the result and whether they were more creative when working together. The ultimate goal is to consider how they can use the game's results to help them prepare for effective pair programming.

For a team that needs to identify constraints and learn how to improve delivery, the Bottleneck Game [7] can be valuable. Pascal Van Cauwenberghe, a co-creator of the game, described an integration test/release team pressured to complete its work faster by the accelerating pace of delivery from agile development teams. Members of the teams joined to play the game. "By trying out systems thinking and the Theory of Constraints, the players understood the importance of seeing and optimizing the whole," Van Cauwenberghe says. The game

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