I love games for learning – playing about serious matters allows people to drop some of the filters and barriers that may unconsciously affect how group discussions unfold and really explore ideas. And the laughter and drama of playing a game that involves body, mind and emotions in order to learn about something helps ensure that the learnings stick.
At Play4Agile 2013, Markus Wittwer led an amazing and very popular game about team responsibility that explores the importance of shared intentions and playfully illustrates some of the effects of dysfunctional team behaviour. I ran the same game during the Friday night playdate at Agile Coach Camp Canada 2013, where the participants had a lot of fun and made several excellent suggestions for how to extend and improve it. Since then, I’ve been asked to share the exercise so that others can run it with their teams – here you go:
Time required: 15-20 min
Number of players: teams of 7, the more teams the better
- big loops of rope – I bought 20M hanks of lightweight cord at a dollar store and cut it into ~6.5M long pieces. For bigger groups, you may want longer loops.
- beach balls – or other light balls (balloons, playground balls) roughly the size of a soccer ball.
- Participants arrange themselves into teams of 7 and each person grabs onto the loop with two hands. The team members should count off so that they know who is team member #1, team member #2,…through to team member #7
- Each team make a net with the loop by passing the rope to each other until a net is formed.
- Place a ball in the middle of each team’s net. The team’s work is to keep the ball in play on the net – don’t let it fall!
- The facilitator then guides the team through a number of actions/scenarios. In each scenario, the team follows the instruction and attempts to move gently around the room while keeping the ball in play. The facilitator may ask the team to return to a neutral state between scenarios (or not!):
- the team moves around, learning to keep the ball in play
- team member 1 takes 130% of the responsibility by pulling harder on the cord.
- team member 2 gives up some responsibility by loosening their grip on the cord.
- team members 3 & 6 have a conflict and try to pull apart while maintaining their grip on the net.
- team member 4 leaves their home team and joins another team
- team members 5 & 7 swap places
- multi-tasking!: have one team member join onto another team while remaining part of their home team
- remote team member: have one team member close their eyes
- have the team members move around silently
- have one team member remain immobile while the rest of the team moves around.
This is a really powerful game for dramatizing what happens when teams are not aligned in intent or are in a position where team members are distracted from the shared team goal by external factors. I think it works best if you debrief as you go: run one or two scenarios, then pause and encourage participants to reflect on how they are feeling right then, and how the current situation reflects circumstances that are present on their teams.
I firmly believe that Sunday mornings are best observed with a pot of hot coffee and a book or two to enjoy. So at Play4Agile2013 in February, on Sunday morning I pitched a Swashbooking session as one of the early slots in that day’s Open Space (though in my sleep-deprived and slightly hung-over state, I’m sure I called it ‘Bookswashing’ – I always get this backwards!). I also talked about it recently during an Agile Ottawa session as a tool for hacking your thinking, as I believe it’s a great technique for crowd-sourcing booklearning regardless of the time of day.
Swashbooking is a timeboxed approach to quickly skimming books to look for anything important, which can be practiced alone or collaboratively as part of a group. I first learned of swashbooking from Deb Hartmann Preuss (a woman who continually gets me into all kinds of good trouble), though the idea originated with James Marcus Bach, whose work as a software tester and educator has inspired me in many ways. James’ excellent book Secrets of a Buccaneer-Scholar vividly describes his experiences with hacking his own education. He has shared a video on Competitive Swashbooking capturing an 8-hour marathon wherein he and his brother Jon swashbooked their way through a diverse collection of 100+ books in order to produce a short presentation about what they learned.
Group swashbooking as I’ve practiced it is very simple:
- collect a diverse selection of books, at least one per participant. For rapid skimming, paper books offer a distinct advantage over ebooks.
- each person in the group selects a book and reads it in whatever way they prefer for a short period of time (6-10 minute timeboxes work well). The reader may read a chapter, scan the table of contents or index, flip through and look at all the illustrations — whatever works for them in finding something important in the book at hand. Recording observations as you go will be helpful, so stickies or index cards and a pen will come in handy.
- at the end of the timebox, each reader passes the book along to the next person in the group, who then reads it in whatever manner appeals to them as outlined in step 2.
- Repeat step 3 until everyone has had a chance to examine each book
- Have a short, time-boxed group discussion to share observations and impressions of the books being considered.
For a group of 5 people, the timing might work like this for a 60 minute swashbooking session:
- 5 min intro
- 30 min reading – 5 * 6 min reading sessions
- 20 min discussion – 4 min to share impressions of each book
The outcome of a swashbooking session is that all participants get a good overview of what some of the important aspects of the book might be, and have likely learned enough to make a decision of whether it’s worth digging further into a particular book.
At p4a13, the result of the session was that we all decided we really wanted to read Turn the Ship Around cover-to-cover, and there’s a plan afoot to set up a virtual Agile book salon to discuss it in a couple of months. I’ve also done this with my business partners and at other events, and in every case the participants have found the experience fun and beneficial. I can also see using this very successfully in a problem-focused situation, particularly with a diverse selection of books (bring poetry! bring picture books!) in order to stimulate creative thinking about the problem space.
If you decide to try Swashbooking, please leave me a comment letting me know how it worked for you.
One of the most vivid sessions I took part in at the Play4Agile conference in Germany last month was a session on Games for Distributed Teams. Led by the amazing Silvana Wasitova, this discussion built on the preceding session about “Games in 5 Minutes” to explore how these activities can be used with distributed teams. I was hoping to get some new ideas for games to use with teams that are not colocated, since in my experience it’s rarer and rarer to find teams where everyone is located in the same city, let alone the same office. While we talked about and tried some games that could be played across a group of people connected only by a phone line*, for me the fascinating part was how this experience could also be used to demonstrate why there is really no good substitute for in-the-same-room face-time for teams that need to work together.
My discomfort started with the distributed seating arrangement in the room. Rather than arranging chairs in the usual informal circle, Silvana lined up participants along either side of the room with a row of tables in the middle. This immediately created an unsettling sense of disconnection with half of the group, though we were sitting only metres apart and could see each other clearly.
We then played a very simple name game, where each player says their name, followed by a word starting with the first letter of their name, and then the next player tags their name and word onto the name chain alternating from one side of the room to the other: “Ellen Eggplant, Sven Serendipity, Henna Hornet….”. This was easy enough when players were seated facing each other. But then we replayed the game with one row of players with their backs turned to the room, and a row of dividers down the middle to block the sightline from the other side.
The difference in the two experiences was astonishingly visceral. Firstly, the game suddenly became much harder, even though we had already had a practice round which helped with learning everyone’s names and the flow of the game. Without being able to see the other players, remembering the order of names and the second words was somehow much more difficult and the repetition of names proceeded much more slowly. The other thing that really hit home was how easy it was to disconnect from the activity once we weren’t actually looking at each other. I stood up with my iPad to take the picture of the room and because I’d already had my turn, once the picture was done it was too easy to tune out for a moment to check Twitter and email rather than attend to the game – even though we were all still in the same room, mid-session, engaging in a very brief activity. Embarrassing, but illuminating and all-too-familiar**. In the debrief afterwards, other people related experiencing a similar sense of disconnection once people in the game were no longer looking at each other throughout.
We then talked about some other ideas for games for non-colocated teams, such as the excellent on-line Innovation Games that I have used successfully for retrospectives and brainstorming when participants can’t all be in the same room. But despite all the great ideas, what I really learned from this session is how to create a simple exercise to really show team members (and their leaders) what the effects of sitting apart – even without leaving the same room – can be on intra-team communications.
*<rant> maybe it’s an Ottawa public-sector peculiarity, but many of the distributed teams I’ve worked with recently haven’t even had access to basic communication tools like corporate Instant Messaging or wikis, let alone high-quality video connectivity. If securing communications is an issue, perhaps IT departments should provide alternatives to using Twitter or Google Chat on personal devices for work communications?</rant>
**<rant>I spent a year working on a dispersed team for a huge multi-national project involving three different global companies where almost everyone worked from home, connecting principally by phone/email/IM. While I loved the experience for personal reasons (baths at lunchtime! jeans! flextime!), I think it was disastrous for the project in how much it slowed down getting things done. I spent almost all day on the phone dealing with things that would have taken a 10th of the time had we been colocated.</rant>