I was recently asked to explain some of the key principles of Agile and transformation to an audience of over 350 people as part of an organisation launch event. This was to be delivered in less than 30 minutes including an element of fun. Easy!
I’m happy to say the game used was very well received. I’ve had lots of good feedback, and even now people will pass me in the corridor and give me a knowing smile. So, I thought I’d share what we did.
As an Agile coach/consultant, I have several games up my sleeve, all of which are aimed at teams or at training sessions of up to 20 people. The challenge was to scale one of these.
I had used the Marshmallow challenge for over 100 people before. It’s very easy to run and has a fantastic TED talk. Unfortunately, a third of the people in the room had seen it before, including one individual who had done it three times in the last year. After deliberation I settled on an adaptation of one of the popular games used to introduce Scrum – the Ball Point game.
How the Ball Point game is run
The Ball Point game’s objective is to pass a ball between team members, as quickly and accurately as possible. There are two basic rules: each ball must have airtime between people, and the ball must start and end with the same person. The key measurement of value is the number of balls successfully passed around all members of the group in a period of time (80 seconds). Between each round, a retrospective is held and the improvement ideas applied in the following rounds.
The room was arranged in cabaret style with 38 tables of ten people. I recruited thirteen facilitators from the organisation’s current pool of Scrum Masters and Product Owners. Each facilitator would manage a number of table teams (three tables per facilitator) through five rounds of the game. These facilitators were essential for the game to be successful, so we practised the game twice amongst ourselves before the event.
In addition to the facilitators, we needed three runners to collect the team’s scores and one Carol Vorderman (for those not from the UK, she is a celebrity well known for her ability at mental arithmetic) to add all the scores and display the value (number of balls) on a flip chart.
The launch day itself was spent discussing the vision of the new organisation and its transformation plans to become a world-class organisation. As such, the objective of the game was to transform an organisation that was OK at throwing balls to one that was world-class at throwing balls. I christened myself Ned Balls of Loads ‘o’ Balls Inc! I introduced the game and its rules, and we launched into round 1.
The game is on
Round 1 – For each of their tables, the facilitators micromanaged the path that the ball should follow and dictated the path of people that the ball should pass through. The facilitators were instructed to make this path as complex as possible. One facilitator took this instruction to heart and created diagrams of the most complex paths for different numbers of people sitting at a round table! At the end of the 80 seconds there was a minute or two to hold a retrospective as the scores were collected and added up. The tables reviewed the process and looked for ways to improve and increase the number of balls passed through their table team.
Round 2 – After the retrospective on round 1, the tables had fantastic ideas of how to improve their ball-throwing process. However, they now had to get these initiatives approved by the facilitators. The organisation had programmes of work with key decision makers who were remote from the teams. This round emulated the experience of many of the project teams in getting key decisions made. The facilitators were briefed to make themselves scarce (one went for a walk around the room!) or to favour one team over the others or simply to argue with their teams over the logic for a particular change.
This round saw the teams failing to make improvements or having their improvements discounted as cheating by an authoritative facilitator. At this point, one table team became disenchanted with the whole game as their ideas had simply been rejected.
One of the biggest factors causing project delays or blocking transformation is the need to gain approval for changes from people who are remote from the issues e.g. governance boards. This round highlighted what happens if the ownership of improvement decisions or governance is remote. The overall score decreased from round 1 and teams became disheartened.
Round 3 – The need for facilitator approval was withdrawn so that teams were autonomous and could now make improvement decisions. So teams started to cheat and broke the rules of each ball having airtime and passing through every member of the table. The facilitators were briefed to give cheats a score of 0. Despite the poor quality delivered by cheating teams there was a marked improvement to the overall number of balls.
If teams are trusted to make decisions without the need for approval within clear constraints, organisations will make significant productivity improvements.
Round 4 – During round 3, the facilitators were looking out for the people who could not catch. Those identified as poor at catching then had their hands taped gently together using masking tape. The hands were taped in a way that would form a bucket-like target for people to aim at, so that they would be able to catch with little effort. Again, the key metric improved of the number of balls successfully passed around.
The lesson here is that sometimes management constraints are good. By taping the hands of the worst, most clumsy catchers, improvements were made to the overall catching performance of the whole team. Constraints imposed by management can be beneficial to the overall performance of an organisation. In Agile transformations, management often gets sidelined by Agile teams, primarily because of historic micromanagement as demonstrated in round 1. However, these managers have a high-level view of the process being followed and can see issues that teams are not necessarily in a position to see. They are also part of the organisation, share the same goal and have improvement ideas too.
Round 5 – In the last round, the tables went all out to get the largest total they could possibly manage. By this time, the whole room was quiet with concentration and there was an audible rhythm of movement of people throwing and catching. Needless to say, the round 4 total was smashed and we applauded our transformational achievements for we were now world class at throwing balls, having increased the total value by over 300%.
Other lessons from the game
In addition to the team lessons within the game, there are parallels with other roles necessary for scaling Agile. The runners and the Carol Vorderman were effectively performing a Project Management Office (PMO) function, bringing results to a central information radiator that is updated; not something the teams should do themselves.
The facilitators are a mixture of Project Management and Quality Assurance, ensuring that the rules of the game are applied, that the quality is high and that results are communicated. This demonstrates that there is still a need for these roles across a portfolio of work and that those roles should focus on the volume and quality of the output of a team rather than on the methods used by a team.
Things to be wary of
A small number of the teams were allowed to cheat without being penalised after round 2. Facilitators must ensure the basic rules of the Ball Point game are adhered to. Each ball must pass through the hands of each team member, each ball must have airtime between people, and each ball must start and end with the same person. If a team cheats, they do not produce a quality product and they should score 0. Facilitators must enforce this. Otherwise the lesson is in danger of becoming that you should innovate to cut quality rather than to improve the process!
To run the game, I needed approximately 600 balls and 40 suitable buckets! I opted for ping pong balls as these would cause less damage but still be entertaining when dropped. The buckets were cheap children’s buckets for building sandcastles. Be aware if you decide to do this and source 600 ping pong balls through the internet you’ll be inundated with adverts for sporting equipment!
A large number of people throwing ping pong balls and having fun generates a lot of noise! So make sure as the person controlling the game you have a whistle or an air horn – it truly is the only way to get everybody’s attention at the end of each round.
If your organisation is looking for similarly engaging ways to drive forward its Agile transformation, please get in touch.