Agile games, simulations and learning activities

A colleague approached me recently with a request. He was about to meet with a new division of his company and lead transformation activities at the team level, so he wanted advice on the best agile games to include. As usual, I turned my advice into a blog post so that (hopefully) others can benefit from my experiences.

We all know that games are fun and that humans are hard-wired to play. Like most coaches, I use games, simulations and other learning activities fairly liberally in my engagements, but I want to be clear: I never play games just to play games. There has to be a need for taking an activity out of my toolbox and introducing it to the team.

Activities that get us out of our chairs are generally good. The body moves around and gets blood up to our brains. It gives us a chance to get away from the book-fed material and internalize the lessons. All good points, but still we often sell the benefit of game-play short to say something like “this section of the training material is dry, so let’s put a game here”.

Including a game or simulation should be thought of as a “teeing up” of the learning objective. Another way to say it: the game creates an effective canvas for painting the picture. It prepares the learners to “get” the message. Just as I wouldn’t force a game into my curriculum for the sake of having a game, I also wouldn’t ignore the opportunity to reinforce the training objective with a valid learning activity.

My favorite games for teaching lean and agile concepts

Before I share my list, a quick word on terms. (Credit goes to Derek Wade @derekwwade for this description in the Google group: Agile Games)

  • Learning Activity – Exercises that engage people, helping them reach a conclusions and assist in learning (thereby increasing performance).
  • Problem-Based Learning – Learning activities which require participants to solve problem relating to a specific subject.
  • Simulation – A problem-based learning activity that has components which cognitively mirrors the environment, methods, problems and practices of the learning domain.
  • Game – A simulation which has rules of play to either win/lose (finite game) or to keep the game in play (infinite game).

Jargon aside, here’s a list of games:

  • Buy a Feature – Teaches feature prioritization
    • Best played in groups of 3-8. Takes 10-15 minutes.
    • Each player receives two items: (1) a handout with a menu of features and their prices (2) a sum of play money. (Features can be anything: items to have on a vacation, goals of a two-day training, benefits of a high-functioning team, etc.) The play money should contain a variety of denominations. The sum total of all players’ money should be less than the total of all feature prices – this introduces scarcity and forces the team to make trade-offs because it’s not possible to purchase all items on the list.
    • Players take turns using their individual sums of money to but the features they deem most valuable. Once players have spent most of their funds (either they don’t have enough individually to make another purchase or they don’t value what’s left on the menu to buy anything else), the group will pool the remaining funds and discuss what to buy from the remaining items.

     

  • Human Knot [ link to example video ]- Teaches self-organization
    • Best played in groups of 6-20. Takes about 2-3 minutes per round, including instructions.
    • Start with all players standing to form a large circle, facing inside the circle. Everyone moves in close (shoulder-to-shoulder) and reaches their left hand into the mix, grabbing the left hand of another player (not their immediate neighbor). Next, reach in the right hands and grab a new person’s right hand (again, not the neighbor next to you).
    • While keeping all hands connected, the group then proceeds to twist and turn out of the scrambled knot they’ve formed. After a minute or more, the group should once again return to a large circle of people clasping hands.
    • Remember: Safety first. If someone is getting squeezed or about to trip, it’s better to release a hand or two tham to end up with broken bones or sprained thingies.
    • It’s fun if two or more groups of equal number compete to see who can “untie” themselves first.

     

  • Multitasking [ link ] – Shows how multi-tasking reduces effectiveness.
    • Played individually at a table or whiteboard. Playing two rounds takes less than 5 minutes.
    • Each player needs one sheet of paper (or on a whiteboard) and something to write with. It’s best if they each have their own stopwatch (phone, duh), but the facilitator can monitor time for the group if necessary.
    • The paper will have three blank columns to be filled in, and the task is the same for each of two rounds. Column one will contain the letters A thru J; column two lists the digits 1 thru 10; column three will have roman numerals I thru X. All finished columns should contain their ten elements in their proper order.
    • The difference between the two rounds comes in how the columns get filled out. in round one, players must write one letter, followed by one digit, followed by one roman numeral, then repeat. In round two, players should write all letters first, before moving on to the digits, and filling in the roman numerals last.
    • Each of the two rounds is timed, and we see that the multitasking of round one consumes a greater time than the focused task completion of round two.

     

  • Pair-Origami (link) – Illustrates the importance of face-to-face (vs. distributed) communication.
    • Need total of six or more players. Takes about 10-15 minutes.
    • Divide the players into three groups (A, B & C). Players for pairs in each group. Each pair consists of a folder and a PO (product owner) or manager. All folders get a single sheet of 8.5×11 paper, and each PO/manager receives an instruction page (download link).
      • Players in group A sit side-by-side. Only the folder player may fold the origami, but both partners may see the instruction sheet.
      • Players in group B sit face-to-face. Only the folder player may fold the origami. The PO/manager may give feedback but may not show the instructions to the folder.
      • Players in group C sit back-to-back. Only the folder player may fold the origami. The PO/manager may read/explain the instructions to the folder but may not see the origami as it’s being folded.
    • When the timer starts, all pairs get to work. When a pair completes their origami, their time gets recorded. The facilitator may (mercifully) call time when it’s apparent that pairs in group C are about to explode.

     

  • Penny Flip game (link) – Emphasizes value of small batches and process improvement.
    • Teams of 8-10 gathered around a table. Four rounds of play takes about 20-25 minutes.
    • Need a roll of pennies (other coins or cards may be substituted)
    • (more description coming soon)

     

  • Ball Point game (link) – Teaches teamwork and process improvements.
    • One large team (bigger is better – up to 30 is okay). Four or five rounds of play takes about 15-20 minutes.
    • Need 20-50 balls (balled-up paper works okay) and a large, open space for team to move around.
    • (more description coming soon)

     

These are just a few links to a tiny percentage of games available. For many more activities, I recommend joining the aforementioned Google group: Agile Games as well as visiting some of the great sites that aggregate these invaluable learning activities (eg. TastyCupcakes.org).

One thought on “Agile games, simulations and learning activities

  1. Not so soon 🙂

    “Penny Flip game (link) – Emphasizes value of small batches and process improvement.
    Teams of 8-10 gathered around a table. Four rounds of play takes about 20-25 minutes.
    Need a roll of pennies (other coins or cards may be substituted)
    (more description coming soon)”

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