Communicating Agile through the power of play

By The App Business under Agile 15 May 2015

As an Agile coach, I firmly believe that play is not just one of the best ways to learn, but also one of the best ways to powerfully embed learning. While we learn rapidly and naturally through play as children, sadly, as we get older, our ‘playtime’ is something that just seems to progressively reduce - until one grown-up day, we realise we have forgotten how to play completely.

With this in mind and not unsurprisingly, playtime is something that often gets overlooked when an organisation embarks on something as serious and complex as organisational change. This is a shame, as it’s actually a very effective way of helping people experience directly what that change might look, and feel like.

For example, transforming an organisation from something like a Waterfall approach to more agile ways of working is a challenging enough task. Often, those leading the process hit the books, or attend formal talks and training - and then try to roll out this transition by the rule book. Consistently, though, what I see is that Agile hasn’t embedded very well amongst the wider team at all following this approach, and understanding is academic (and in the wider team, often sceptical) rather than tangible or deeply felt.

This is the part where I think serious play, not just serious research, has a significant role to play in communicating and bringing agile methodologies to life. So you can probably imagine how my ears pricked up when our client team at Homebase mentioned that, as part of our work with them on their agile transformation programme, they wanted to host a team away day for 80 people - and that a key component of the day was that it should be as fun as possible.

What a stroke of luck, then, that with our recent move to a new HQ building in King’s Cross, we also just happened to have the perfect playground: a fantastic, open plan third floor space ripe for a Homebase ‘takeover’.

The brief

What Homebase needed seemed straightforward: an open space for Homebase to do their thing and throw in some of fun. Actually, though, having such a short and open brief meant that as Agile coaches, we had a huge amount of scope to ‘play’ with.

And play we did. We already run some extremely powerful training sessions for the team here at TAB, called Tune Ups, and these rely heavily on experiential learning. Fellow Agile coach Chris and I rarely ‘teach’ or instruct anything. We prefer to take our audience on a journey that enables them to learn for themselves along the way, and draw their own conclusions through the experiences they have.

Like the old saying goes, ‘Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I will remember. Involve me, and I will understand.’ Adapting those Tune Ups from 10 TABbers to 80 Homebasers worked exceptionally well. On the day, we ran two of our favourite games for what turned out to be a wonderfully energetic and competitive Homebase team.

It’s playtime

A game called ‘Cheerleader’ got the day started and the blood pumping: imagine two halves of the room cheering at the top of their voices, urging their finalist on to win in a ‘rock, paper, scissors’ knockout tournament. The point here is to reconnect the team to notion of play. It didn’t take long for Homebase either: the energy levels in the room went through the roof, and it truly turned the mood of the day up to awesome.

Next, it was time for an utterly bonkers competition based around spaghetti and marshmallows. I won’t spoil the surprise for anyone who hasn’t played this game before, but the gist of it is that each team has 20 sticks of spaghetti, some tape, some string and a marshmallow: the aim of the game is build the highest structure you can. If it remains standing after 10 unaided seconds, the height of your marshmallow is recorded.  The winning team, in case you’re wondering, reached dizzying heights of 65 cm. Its a powerful lesson in self-organisation.

The next game revolves entirely around the importance of face-to-face communication and collaboration in Agile. Each team starts by drawing a picture through conversation with their product owner (a member of the team). The clincher comes when you need to recreate the picture of another team, with only written instructions as your guide. Beautiful artwork soon goes out the window.

Does it sound frivolous? Maybe, but I am always amazed with the power of this game in proving how ineffective a form of communication writing is when trying to build or recreate something. The big reveal at the end, when the pictures are put side-by-side, is always evidence enough for participants to walk away with a clear message in their head:

Face-to-face communication really is better than written communication, every time.

Something to remember, the next time someone tells you a user story must follow ‘x’ written format.

All in all, Chris and I had an amazing day - but much more importantly, we brought Agile to life for the Homebase team with simple, powerful fun that will stay longer in the mind than a Powerpoint deck, or a keynote talk. Agile is a philosophy you need to experience if you are going to make it work, and it’s so rewarding when events like this lead to people walking away, inspired to change how they work and with the confidence of having seen Agile principles in action.

I can’t wait for our next session - which might just involve a huge amount of LEGO and yet more serious play. Stay tuned...