Our Thinking
Balls! Learning agile principles with the ball game
08 February 2017 | Posted by Ciaran Hanway

At Kainos, we don’t aggressively advocate one particular agile methodology. This is because:

  • We don’t think there’s a simple one size fits all approach to any of the many unique circumstances we help our clients with.
  • We prefer to focus on the principles of the Agile Manifesto, encouraging people to think for themselves, rather than follow any particular methodology by rote.

We do this with training courses and with focused coaching over time to make sure that change beds in. Our aim is to make sure that when we finish working with a client, we have not only left new skills with an organisation, but also helped that organisation understand how to learn for itself. Organisations are made up of teams, and teams of people. So we like to encourage people to embrace their curiosity and passion for learning.

One of the key approaches to support this is “Inspect and Adapt”. In other words, “look at how things are going and make changes to correct for problems”. It has its roots in the work of W Edwards Deming, whose work was fundamental to the incredible post war development of Japanese industry, and whose “Deming Cycle” pops up all over the place in various forms:

The Deming Cycle – Plan Do Check Act

The cycle happens all the time: in standups, in show and tell sessions, in daily work, and of course the retrospective has “Inspect and Adapt” as its main focus. I’ve noticed that, like many things, this all sounds really good in theory when we’re running a training course, but only really beds in once we get people trying it out in practice.

Let’s Play!

So we play a game. It’s not a new game: I first played it over ten years ago, but it’s a great way of exploring “Inspect and Adapt”, and giving people a good understanding of a simple agile process. I usually cap off agile training courses with it, but often just run the game on its own.

It takes about an hour. It works best when you have a minimum of five people playing, but you can theoretically have dozens playing at once. You will need a flip chart and pen, a stopwatch, and about 150 ping pong balls (You can get them cheaply here: http://amzn.to/2k1GbXg).

Here’s how to facilitate the game:

  • Organise the group into teams (or one big team if you like).
  • Explain that the teams will be “processing” the balls according to the following rules:
  • Each ball must start and end with the same person
  • Each ball must be touched by each team member at least once.
  • The ball cannot be passed to your immediate neighbour.
  • The ball must have “air time” – tossing, dropping, catching are acceptable.

Tell the team that there will be five rounds, broken up as follows:

  • A 2 minute round for planning the work and estimating the score the teams will get when they do the work.
  • A 2 minute round for actually doing the work.A 2 minute round for recording the score and and thinking about how to improve the score next time (a retrospective).

Draw up a score template for each team and give the team the following guidance for scoring:

  • Each ball that completes the process awards 1 point.
  • Each ball that’s dropped subtracts 2 points.

Ball Game Score Sheet

Then let them get on with it. But be mindful of the following during the exercise:

  • Often teams will, in their haste, forget to record their score estimates before leaping in. Make sure they do record these.
  • Similarly, the teams will forget to record their score, to do the retrospective, and record their learnings from the retrospective. Remind them.
  • About part way through the 5 sessions, tell them that you’ve seen a lot higher scores at other clients. In fact, you’ve seen some clients have scored 250 points per round.

At the end of the five rounds, get the team together to explore what they have taken from the experience. Some good questions for the group include:

  • What happened?
  • Which iterations felt the best?
  • How did you make decisions?
  • Who had all the ideas?
  • When something went wrong what did you do?
  • How would things have been different if you had appointed a leader?
  • Would things have been better with one up front 10 minute planning session instead of five 2 minute planning sessions throughout?
  • Why did dropped balls cost 2 points?
  • Did you work harder or faster to improve your score?
  • What happened after I told you about the scores achieved by the best teams?
  • How does all this apply to you?

Some key things the team learns from the game:

  • Self-organisation works. You don’t need a leader to tell you what to do, rather you should feel empowered to decide how best to do a task.
  • If everyone feels empowered and cares about the process, the ideas are likely to be even generated throughout the team.
  • If leaders are appointed or imposed, teams can revert to looking to them for all the thinking.
  • Leaders can become bottlenecks if individuals don’t feel empowered.
  • A long up front planning session doesn’t give you the opportunity to learn by doing and replan.
  • Experiments sometimes fail and that’s OK.

“I hear I forget, I see I remember, I do I understand” –  Confucius

Hopefully you’ll find this game useful for coaching your teams. Not only can you use a lot of analogies from the ball point game during ongoing coaching, but the shared experience of the game brings people together, and going through the process of the game really helps bed in the discoveries your teams can take away from the game.

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