Agile 2016: Games In The Agile Practice

August 25, 2016 — Posted by Tom Grant
For Agile games, the Agile 2015 conference was a breakthrough moment. Not only was the first keynote about games, but the odds were good that you encountered a game in at least one of the sessions. Agile disrupts the old rules of software innovation; serious games are tools that help with this disruption. The fit is natural.
Naturally, as a proponent, practitioner, and designer of serious games, in Agile development as well as other settings, I was eager to see what kind of presence games would have at Agile 2016. The good news: Agile games were just as ubiquitous as they were in 2015. The mildly discouraging news: we're not yet at a point where games are a regular part of an Agile practice.
Agile Games Provide More Than Teaching Moments
It would be a shame if Agile games turned into a passing fancy. Unfortunately, most of the games you see at conferences have only a one-time use. Educational games, such as The Self-Organization Game, The Penny Game, and getKanban, teach an important point, and then they go back on the shelf. If Agile games were limited to educational ones -- in particular, the ones that focus on fundamentals -- the interest in Agile games would decrease as the number of mature Agile teams increased.
Agile games can do far more than just teach Agile practices or principles. Let's zoom out to see a broader landscape of challenges that serious games can address. By changing the rules that govern regular activities, such as getting insight into customer needs, prioritizing the backlog, or estimating work items, games transform behavior. Planning Poker is the most familiar example: collectively, the team creates better estimates than even the smartest, most experienced individual ever could. Product Box is a less familiar example: by constraining the physical space in which customers can describe their needs, the exercise forces them to distill long lists of features into the core value. 
Let's zoom out further. The type of games we've discussed so far are lightweight exercises that have very few rules, and don't require material components beyond what you'd already find in an office supply cabinet. There are other types of games that may be more complex, but also bring benefits that the simpler games cannot. For example, one client with whom I worked struggled with the idea of dedicated, persistent teams. Therefore, I created a simple board game, The Design Factory, that simulated the choices facing an IT organization juggling people and projects. The game did more than just settle the point about team persistence. It also, when played with another client, simulated the pros and cons of different team configurations. Did it make sense to create a team of top performers, to focus on the highest-value projects? Should they organize teams by business domain or technology? By exploring the likely consequences of these choices in a game, they saved themselves the cost of running some experiments in real life.
Games Are A New Discipline, But Not A Hard One
I hope that example excites you about the enormous potential that serious games have for Lean-Agile organizations. (There are a lot of Lean-oriented games, too, such as The Dot Game.) However, you won't realize that potential unless you make games a part of your Lean-Agile practice, which means acquiring a few extra skills and experiences. Otherwise, it's hard to know what games might help you, and how to use them effectively.
In my talk at Agile 2016, I focused on the first part of incorporating games into an Agile practice, choosing the right game. Even though I narrowed the field down to a limited number of challenges, and a limited number of games, I still wasn't able to get through the discussion adequately in 75 minutes. I didn't go near some of the other elements of Agile games that you need to master to go beyond the one-shot game that teaches a particular practice or principle. For example, games are extremely useful tools for generating quantitative data about teams, value streams, customers, and other areas where you might lack actionable information. But what are the tricks of the trade for getting numbers out of a game?
Agile games are not a hard discipline to master. In fact, they're far easier than, say, moving to continuous delivery, or dealing with a large amount technical debt. Nevertheless, there is some learning and first-hand experience required. Happily, there are a lot of people ready to help, myself included. 
(What games do you use in your Lean-Agile practice? I've started a discussion thread in our forum on this topic.)
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About the author | Tom Grant

Tom Grant is an analyst covering software development and delivery. His Specific focus areas include Agile, Lean, application lifecycle management (ALM), requirements, serious games, and the innovation process. Some of the serious games he has developed are teaching tools, often for people learning Agile software development practices. Others are simulations, intended to help people try out different innovation strategies. He has also taught political science at UC Irvine and Chapman College.


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