If you’ve been at an Agile conference, been a Scrum Master for quite some time and joined an Agile meetup group (here in The Netherlands there are several), then you probably found that games can be very quick ways to energize any meeting and to drive learning through fun.
One game I’ve been doing a lot during Scrum Developer courses is a variation on the Agile Chair Game as described on Tasty Cupcakes.
Just to reiterate the goal of the game very quickly. Have the team learn quickly by failing in rapid succession and learning from their mistakes. The game drives short cycles, inspection and adaption and lays down a number of restrictions that they (initially) cannot work around (just like the real world does).
As I mentioned we’ve been doing a number of small changes to the game, so here’s how we play it:
Agile Chair Exercise
Number of participants: 10-25
Number of facilitators: 1
Required attributes: as many chairs as participants to the game.
Space needed: 1 room that can easily have the number of chairs randomly laid out in the room so that every chair stands on its own in the space
Time taken: 15-60 minutes
Ask all the participants to put their chairs in the space selected for the game. Have them keep the following restrictions in mind:
- Chairs must be placed in the game area
- Chairs must be evenly facing all sides of the room
- The seat of the chair must be far enough from any obstacle so that you can easily step away from the chair
- Initially: no two chairs may be put directly next to each other
Instructions to the group
Ask for one volunteer to leave the room (if there is no room available use blindfolds and headphones). Instruct this volunteer separately.
Explain to the group the following rules:
- They get 2 minutes to define a strategy to “win” the game.
- Their objective is to make sure that the volunteer is not able to sit down on an empty chair.
- They can only do so by taking the empty seat themselves
- No person may occupy more than 1 chair at a time
- They are not allowed to push, hold, pull the volunteer (no force whatsoever)
- They get 2 minutes to form a strategy
- They are allowed to use audio or visual queues
Explain the volunteer the following rules while the group forms their plan
- The volunteer needs to find an empty chair and sit down on it
- He may not push, hold, pull any of the participants
- He may start the game as soon as the 2 minutes are up (this usually lets him win the first time within seconds, as the group is not keeping to their timebox.
Start the exercise
As soon as the 2 minutes expire the game starts. The facilitator is to time each turn from the moment the timebox expires until the volunteer sits down.
As soon as the volunteer sits down the time stops. Note down the time and challenge the team to do better next time.
The volunteer leaves the room and the participants get 2 minutes to reflect and 2 minutes to form a new strategy. If the strategy does seem good to you (as a facilitator) you can give them a second attempt immediately.
Rinse and repeat until they can hold off the volunteer for at least 3 minutes or until they’ve taken 5 rounds.
1st alternative – Change the layout
Either the team found a strategy that works pretty well, or they’ve found that the setup of the chairs is their biggest obstacle. As with many of the obstacles we face, we first need to show it really is an obstacle before any changes are allowed to it (just like any IT-processes in their real world). So after a couple of rounds, give them permission to re-layout the room and allow them to have their chairs be placed against each other. Essentially changing this rule:
- Initially: no two chairs may be put directly next to each other
- Chairs are allowed to stand next to each other as long as every chair can still easily be reached and has an open space in front of it.
- No chair may be setup in such a way that any other chair essentially is unreachable.
- No chair may me placed directly against a wall or obstacle.
This will usually result in a number of setups that play a lot better for the group:
- All chairs in a circle with their backs facing each other.
- All chairs in a circle with their fronts facing each other and a gap in one spot to allow access to the volunteer
- All chairs in two rows with their backs connected
Have them try again.
Changing the setup usually improves the chances of the group considerably, which is the queue for the next set of alternatives
Other alternatives – up the stakes
These alternatives now try to explain a few extra problems they may be facing in real life. Usually, I just explain them the new rules and later ask them if they understand which real-life problem we just simulated.
The Support person
Additional required attributes:
- One baseball cap
- One siren or flashing light
In this variation, one of the participants has a second role in the project, that of the support guy. The support guy can be called away at any time to put out a problem with the production environment. This can be a very simple task such as turning off the siren or flashing light whenever you turn it on.
Ask for a second volunteer. Instruct this person that whenever the siren goes off or the light turns on he must turn it off as quickly as possible, By doing so he leaves a second chair unoccupied, causing the strategy to change.
Either manually turn on the queue, or use an egg timer or similar device. Make sure its signal is clear even in the noise mayhem that usually occurs when playing this game.
You can make it even harder by requiring a task, such as drinking a glass of water, turning over 10 coins etc.
Learning: It’s hard as a team to reach your goals if key team members are constantly called away.
The shared office space office
In many shared offices the noise that is emitted by a team that’s doing truly creative work can be bothersome to other teams or individuals. In this alternative, the group is required to play the game silently. This is more fun when the team has not yet re-arranged their chairs. The tactics usually change drastically.
Learning: To be really creative and effective, it’s important to have a good understanding of each other (hand signals), but nothing beats the option to simply make noise. Shared office spaces are great for some activities, nut for others find a space and time to be truly creative.
Every time a team member is idle (read is sitting down to relax), he’s not productive. Require the team to find a way that allows them to be as productive as possible. Ask each team member to count the number of times he sat down.
Learning: Looking busy is not the same thing as being productive. Hopefully, they will challenge the metric being used. Look for similar metrics in their real-world situation and have them come up with better ones.
This is often a fun change to the rules. Ask a second volunteer to step out of the room. Tell the team that you’re so pleased with their performance and that you now expect them to take the next step. Be twice as productive!
Make sure that the two volunteers also take their 2 minutes to define their strategy. It usually works best if they work together closely to solve the problem.
Learning: pairing is more efficient for the volunteers than trying as individuals, the same often applies to our real work. Spreading your concentration on two empty chairs at the same time requires a lot more coordination between team members and has a much higher chance of failure.
If your group is of sufficient size, ask them to subdivide into two groups. Have one group play the game for 15 minutes to come up with a strategy. Have the other group use those same 15 minutes to define their strategy.
When the 15 minutes have expires let the group that has done their analysis up front attempt the game for the first time. Use the volunteer from the other group to spice things up even more,
Then have the other group play another round.
Chances are very high that the group who has played the game for at least 4 rounds now, greatly outperforms the team that took the same time to analyze the problem.
Learning: Inspection and Adaption works much better than analysis for a longer period of time for a complex task.
The final version we sometimes play is to highlight how difficult it is to transfer a way of working on paper or vocally. Often it’s best to experience the game at least once. Again, split the group into two and have one team play the game until they get pretty good. Have the other team take a 15 minute break to grab a cup of coffee or something (or play another game with them).
Ask the first team to write down their best strategy on a flip chart and ask them to write down their last “score”,
Bring in the second team. Give them 2 minutes to understand the strategy and then start the game again. Have the original team observe to see if the strategy was executed as they meant it to be executed.
If your group is large enough for 3 teams, bring in the 3rd team. Have the 1st team demonstrate their strategy in slow-motion for 2 minutes and then let the 3rd team try. These usually do much better than the team that had the written demonstration.
Another alternative might be that one or two team members of the original team join the new team to explain it in person and actually play the first round with them.
Learning: Observation usually works much better than written instructions. Working with people who’ve already done it, usually works even better.
Some funny ways this game can play out that we’ve observed:
- One team barricaded the door to the room and effectively removed the interruptions of the volunteer.
- One team moved in completely synchronized and held hands, blocking access to all chairs except the free one without using any force, this was in a response to the “be productive” alternative (finally broken by the volunteer diving under their arms and sitting down)
So far the best groups set up the circle with the backs towards the center of the circle and move like a caterpillar to keep the empty chair on the opposite site of the volunteer. This setup is very hard to break and can easily last for 5-10 minutes.