Uncharted Waters

Jul 22 2019   9:41AM GMT

The Ultimate Agile Game

Matt Heusser Matt Heusser Profile: Matt Heusser


The Agile Game GameYou may be familiar with the idea of an “Agile Game.” These teach a concept, like the importance of feedback or teamwork. For example, David Hoppe and I once did a talk, “One Weird Trick to Improve Collaboration“, where we had people play a pair-programming game, or not, to see who could identify the capitals of all 50 states faster.

Today I’m going to describe the ultimate Agile Game, one invented a few years ago in Potsdam, Germany, at the Agile Testing Days Conference.  The first time I played this game was with Tobias Geyer, Tamara De Paus, and  Shachar Schiff as the secret agent.

Oh yes, there is a secret agent.

Here’s how to play.

Purpose and Intent

Tobias's Favorite Agile Game

The Game Game teaches that real long term improvement is impossible if everything keeps changing all the time. It also allows players to experience the lack of motivation that happens when technical staff do not understand the goal, vision, product or customer. The game can allow players to experience how humans are meaning machines — how without meaning, humans will invent meaning for random events. Finally, the game is open-ended, so players can walk away with insights about each other, teamwork, or anything else they find.

The game consists of three parts:

A) The “Game.” Silly commands round by round that have the form of Agile but no substance
B) The “Fake Retro” Players experience, and slowly realize, conditions that can marginalize the value of a retrospective. They might even recognize some of these in their daily work!
C) The Real Retro Where we talk about what people can learn from the exercise

The Game Game Agile Game


Agile Game with chairs and a babyThe game should be played in an environment with other agile games, and likely not played first. Players will be acclimated to doing silly things – drawings, organizing cards into stacks, etc, on demand. The group is split into players, in a “team” of 5-8 people, and the coaching staff, who know the game.

Players are not told the rules of the game.

In the GameGame, players are asked to do entirely ridiculous things in sprints. Each sprint should have an opportunity to fail. Here are a few:

Sprint 1: Put 25 chairs in the corner of the room as a song plays
Sprint 2: Put 10 more chairs in the same corner, while a team member stands on one foot
Sprint 3: Put 10 more chairs in the same corner, while two team members stand on one foot – and tap their heads
Sprint 4: Put 10 more chairs in the same corner, while three team members shake each other’s hands as a group
Sprint 5: Organize the chairs in the corner as a circle, while one team member recites the lyrics to a song.
Sprint 6: All team members run around the chairs the same number of times as the number of players in one minute or less
Sprint 7: Organize the chairs as a square, while two team members stand on one foot

The sprint “fails” if the team members step on the ground, the song ends, time runs out, and so on.

The Fake Retro

After 4 or more sprints, pretend to hold a retrospective. That is, ask what players would like to keep, stop, start, etc. Expect confusion. They may be hostile. Because they don’t know what is coming next, they are unable to plan for the changes. Asked what to improve, expect non-answers like “go faster.”

Players may not enjoy the game and want to quit.

This is where your secret agent player comes in. The secret Agent will act as if they have realized the “secret” of the game, talk about what they have learned (there may be some real insights), and generally encourage the players to do four more rounds to get to the next retrospective point. If they ever want to give up, the Agent encourages them to keep playing, to “finish” the game.

Of course, there is no finish. Play continues in four round increments until the players refuse to continue.

You should be able to do at least three terrible retrospectives first.

Guidance During the Game

During the A/B loop, ignore anyone who asks “why” they are doing things. If the team members start to complain, urge them to go “a few more sprints” or two “finish.” If open rebellion appears near, tell the players the sprint number at which the game will end and get them to play until that round. The Secret Agent will help here, agreeing with the game staff.

The Real RetroAgile TD - Where the Agile Game Game was invented

Once players refuse to continue, stop the game and conduct the real retrospective. What was the point of the exercise? What did players feel? What did they learn? If they knew that the exercise after the circle was running around it, would they have stacked differently? What does that mean?

This is where you can reveal that there was no consistency between sprints, making genuine improvement impossible. The easiest way to complete one round of stacking chairs might make a future sprint of running around the chairs harder. Without a unifying vision, the team won’t know how to improve. Other ways to destabilize a team include frequent re-organization, hiring, firing and transfers, or just cancelling projects.

Get the team to tell you that and to come up with some real lessons learned. Then tell them this is a simulation, with a surprise … which is the only place they will ever be deceived by you.

Then keep your word.

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