Serious games help Agile teams get even more nimble

I’m back from the Agile 2013 conference in Nashville, Tennessee. It’s my favorite conference every year, because you can see real change happening before your eyes. You can also see how, once you start down the road towards real improvement, serious games play a constructive road along the way.

(If you’re not familiar with Agile ¬†practices, I’ll save you a long-winded explanation and just tell you that, like the Six Million Dollar Man, software development became faster, better, stronger. Click here if you want to learn the basics.)

Agile provides a good example of how serious games can complement and reinforce other strategies for change. We saw this connection between Agile and serious games at the Innovation Games Summit in January 2013, where a large percentage of attendees were people involved in Agile software development. Many of the Agile coaches in attendance use serious games to help teams improve team collaboration, understand their customers, and prioritize their work.

Even if you’re not in software development, and know nothing about Agile, it’s still worth understanding how serious games and Agile fit together. Chances are, if you’re reading this blog post, you have some changes in the works where serious games can complement other measures you’re undertaking.

Games like Product Box can satisfy this critical need. Product Box is a highly focused, short-term activity that compels the players to summarize what they want in the limited space of the cover of the box. The format suggests that they should choose their words carefully, since they have limited room in which to describe what’s important to them. An extra level of wordsmithing is also a natural by-product, since the players have to make the Product Box appear like something attractive enough that a person like them would take it off the shelf and seriously consider it.

Understand the customer better
At every Agile conference, there are always a couple of topics that drive a sizeable ch

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unk of the presentations and side conversations. This year, the high cost of not understanding the customer was one of those topics. There may be a variety of tools, both traditional (for instance, focus groups) and new (such as data describing how customers actually use the software, collected as they use it), but they don’t necessarily provide accurate, thought-provoking, and

“actionable” insights early enough to avoid wasting time and effort

working on the wrong things.

Focus on the customer’s core needs
If you’re already familiar with the concept of a minimum viable product, you have probably already anticipated the next benefit of using serious games in Agile development. Agilists have powerful incentives to keep their work simple: not too many items in the backlog; prioritize the higher-value ones first; show the customer your work product regularly to ensure that you’re delivering value.

While Agile disciplines help you build the minimum viable product, they don’t help you anticipate what the minimum viable product is. Unfortunately, “I’ll know it when I see it” is a terrible way for customers to tell you want they need. An exercise like Product Box gets to those essentials before you build the actual product.

Make smarter decisions faster
Agile already includes one very game-like activity, Planning Poker, which is a collaborative way of estimating the size of work items. It’s a mini-crowdsourcing exercise that includes the team in estimation. It’s also a way of spurring people to talk to each other, uncovering additional facts about the work and the team in the process.

Other serious games can help reach these decisions faster. Buy A Feature, for example, is an excellent prioritization tool. Instead of arguing for hours over which favorite project, yours or mine, is more important, Buy A Feature compels players, within only an hour or less, to make these important decisions.

Address weaknesses in the team
One question I often get in my day job is, “When do we know when we’re really Agile?” One sure answer is, “When you get really serious about continuous improvement.” Really good Agile teams scrutinize reports about the amount of work they do over time, the rate at which they address bugs and other issues, and the accuracies of their planning.

As valuable as they are, these metrics don’t tell you how to identify the source of a problem like, “Our estimates are always way off.” It takes insights from other sources to get a real diagnosis and prognosis. For example, Speedboat might help uncover the sources of technical debt, the additional maintenance work that accumulates when you haven’t done testing or design carefully enough.

Expand collaboration
As mentioned earlier, Planning Poker gives everyone on the team, not just the loudest voices in the room, an opportunity to participate in the crucial process of estimating how much work it will take to deliver some piece of functionality. Other games expand collaboration, too.

There is no such thing as “the customer.” What we think of “the customer” is actually an organization or some other grouping of individuals involved in the adoption of new technology. Business executives may tell you that some features are important, but the people who work for them may have another opinion. Serious games like Spider Web help draw out those voices, ensuring that they have just as much opportunity to influence the outcome as any other player, including the mouthiest of executives. The result, for Agile teams, is a piece of software that’s better designed for the people who will be using it.

Identify the experts
Agile teams are tight little organizations that include the people most immediately involved in completing new software releases every few weeks. Therefore, they don’t include the experts in more arcane subjects, such as security, that they don’t encounter every day.

In a large organization, it can be a real challenge to find the expert in a particular piece of arcana. Gamification, therefore, provides a very easy way to build that directory of knowledge. The number and type of awards or badges someone receives can be a good sign that a person really understands security issues or other topics.

The best thing about serious games and Agile
Very often, Agile teams are thinking about improving their skills or their output through some expensive or difficult changes. A new test automation tool might have an excellent return on investment, but it still takes time to implement it, and in many cases, the price tag won’t be cheap. Serious games of the types I’ve mentioned here don’t require anything close to that level of investment. You still need to know what you’re doing, and enough preparation to make the exercise a success. But that’s still a lot cheaper than the alternatives.

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