Games with Distributed Teams at Play4Agile 2013: An unexpected takeaway

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>

Steps for creating a new game

Play is powerful stuff. I had the tremendous good fortune to take part in Play4Agile, an Unconference on games for Agile teams held near Frankfurt, Germany two weekends ago. It was a tremendous amount of fun and a really intense learning experience — there were so many skilled and enthusiastic people there to learn from and create with that a goodly number of new games were generated over the course of the weekend.

One of the (many) really helpful sessions I took part in was a session on designing games organized by Antti Kirjavainen and Ole Jepsen. I’d already started collaborating on a game with a small gang of people, and we all attended this workshop in order to figure out where to go next with our ideas. Annti gave us a road map for developing a new game:

1) Vision: Why should people play this game? What will they learn? What will they achieve?

2) Identify:

  • Objectives – what are the intended outcomes of the game?
  • Constraints – what the limitations for the activity (how may players, how long might it take, what supplies are available)?
  • Use contexts – who will use this game and how?

3) Brainstorm! – generate a pile of ideas for building a coherent activity

4) Define the game concepts:

  • what do the players do?
  • what is the goal of the game?
  • when does the play end?
  • what are the game objects?
  • what are the main features of the game?

5) Generate test questions to evaluate the game:

  • Is it fun?
  • Are the players engaged?
  • Is it scalable?
  • Is it potentially viral?
  • Do players get the intended ideas?

6) Create a prototype

7) Play test

8) Consider the answers to the test questions based on experience, and go back to step 4.

While this map is simple, creating a game itself is not, thought an idea can grown into a game quite quickly.  My next post will get into the nitty-gritty of how we put together the first version of “Nobody’s Perfect” in about 5 hours.

Playing to Learn

Learning can be fun.  Heck, let’s just get straight to the point and state unequivocally that learning should be fun, dammit!  Learning through play is also a powerfully effective way for people of all ages to acquire and accumulate new concepts and practices.  Current neuroscience suggests that using a variety of approaches to concretize ideas and create new neural networks through a variety of sensory engagements is the best way to for people to learn.  Take a moment to go read Mark Levison’s  InfoQ article “Learning: Best Approaches for Your Brain” for an introduction to neuroplasticity — it’s a fascinating topic.

As an Agile trainer (and in my never-ending experience as a student of Agile), I find that the most memorable elements of the typical 2 day Agile workshop are the games and exercises.  Games like the Penny Game, Mr. Happy Face, and the Multitasking Exercise help people take in new and challenging ideas  in a playful context.  I’ve also observed that time spent playing in the workplace, whether participating in a structured game in a training course or informal kibitzing around the team dartboard/foosball table/Carcassonne board, repays the organization in fostering more fruitful and successful working relationships.  When pressed to get a new-to-Agile team ramped up quickly to work on a new endeavour, I’ve sometimes been tempted to replace the fun stuff with exercises designed around the team’s actual work (and some students have suggested this in workshop retrospectives).  My principal reservation is that as soon as you use real work as a basis for trying on a new idea, the focus is firmly placed on a successful outcome rather than exploring and experimenting with the idea and potentially failing in the process.

There are many resources out there if you are interested in finding games to use in the workplace to teach new Agile concepts and build the team’s collaboration muscles.  I put together an interactive session for the June 2010 Agile Ottawa meeting where participants played several great games, including Colloborative Origami, the Chair Game, and the Marshmallow Challenge:

Much fun was had and no lasting damage was done (the Chair Game can get quite, um, lively).  As this was my first Prezi and I couldn’t figure out how to embed multiple links, here are my sources in easy-to-click form:

Since the presentation to Agile Ottawa in June, I’ve learned a few new games at AgileCoachCampCanada and joined the new Agile Games Google Group, which is a fantastic resource.

I’d love to know what your favourite game for teaching is – leave a comment and share your experiences as a teacher/trainer or a student!