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The Agile Game

December 3, 2009

Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute of Play, believes that the act of play is essential to human development and intelligence. After watching one of his TED talks, Play is more than fun, I was inspired to look into games an agile team can play during a regular sprint. After all, it seems pretty straight forward that human development and intelligence are valuable aspects of a software developer’s career. So I hit up Google for what it could tell me about agile games, and found a bunch of balloon toting, crazy string wielding fun games I could play with my development team. I envisioned my team’s reaction to the introduction of these wild games:

1. Get a bunch of awkward looks.
2. Make a fool of myself to help lead the way
3. Get a few giggles playing the game
4. Try to come up with a different crazy game the following sprint

To me this seemed like a lot of effort for a little flash-in-the-pan fun. I decided I wanted to focus more on games we could play that would infuse themselves into our work stream — Heck, let’s just make our work a game! First let’s discuss what makes a game fun. Games are scenarios where you have a goal to reach while operating within established rules, boundaries and limitations. What makes the game fun is having the freedom to choose different paths toward the goal, being able to use your skills to achieve smaller goals along the way, and to reap the rewards for achieving the goal.

We already have plenty of rules, boundaries and limitations in our workplaces, but let’s talk more specifically to agile software development. I am talking about story breakdown, story estimating, spiking, definition of done for a story, coding standards, pair programming, TDD, stakeholder satisfaction, etc. Once the rulebook is well understood by your team you must give them time to play the game. YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE: the players need uninterrupted blocks of time where they get to play by the rules and innovate a solution. Don’t be afraid, these blocks are measured in hours, not days. Do what you need to do to provide the players with at least 75% of their day as uninterrupted game time (the more the better). If you need meetings with them make sure you consider the following:

1. Do you NEED the meeting?
2. Does everyone need to attend?
3. Can the meeting occur at the edge of a break (start/end of day, right before/after lunch)?

As a Team Lead your job is part referee and part coach. Encourage healthy demonstrations of play and discourage improper play. Help remove problems which affect their ability to play, and celebrate their victories while helping them learn from their defeats.

And finally, a word to the wise – break down your stories into small enough pieces that they can be achieved in no more than 2 work days. Having those frequent moments of accomplishment makes every game more enjoyable.

Logan Peters

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