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Monday, November 6, 2017

Telling stories and playing games

As an Agile Coach I need to find a way to help people practice the concepts I'm teaching in a way that makes it relevant and easy to understand and apply so they can start using those concepts immediately in their daily work.

I've trained hundreds of people, spending thousands of hours doing it in three countries over the last 6 years. I learned pretty quickly that training had to be: 1) interactive--because otherwise I lost people after the first 20 minutes of a 4 hour class and really couldn't get them back, 2) culturally relevant--otherwise it made no sense to them; Agile is an easy concept to understand but not to apply, and 3) fun--because that's how you keep them awake and engaged for the other 3 hours and 40 minutes.

I started out using the penny game--and still use it because it's amazing how it makes a connection for people almost immediately and is fun--and some other well known and useful Agile games. (Shout out to Tasty Cupcakes, the best ongoing Agile game repository!). But the aftermath of my classes was that people really couldn't make the connection to working together with their Product Owner on writing stories--let alone write good stories.

I thought about this quite a bit early on and did tons of research and experimentation but many times I was trying something that I didn't fully understand myself or wasn't relevant to my life so my heart wasn't engaged. And I knew this was the case for my students too; I could see it in their faces.

But necessity and all that research and experimentation led me to creating a few great games/tools I use now whenever I have clients who need some practice. Here's one example:

Story Telling

This is a tweak on a game I found somewhere (I honestly can't remember where so if you know please comment and I'll add the attribute) to help illustrate why it's better to have whole knowledge of what you're trying to build and to work together to do it. It's best with at least 5-10 people participating; more people can make it take longer but is no less fun. 

The group selects the story elements together; depending on your group this could be time-consuming if they're all reticent to speak so I call out whatever culturally relevant ideas I can to get things going (Jon Snow or Elsa anyone?)
Create a story by speaking only one word at a time. The story must include the following elements:
Story Elements:
  • a character (can be a name)
  • a household object
  • a location
  • The story must “flow"
  • Players can add the words “full stop” to indicate a new sentence (that's their word)
  • The story elements the team chose must be used
I usually ask someone in the room to be the recorder so we can read it back at the end; I stress they should only capture each word spoken, not fill in the blanks or edit.

I don't give the group time to confer or allow them to talk while in the game, other than to say their one word each. They invariably try to help one another and I gently dissuade them.

Generally, it takes a few minutes for everyone to warm up and commit to being vulnerable and participate. And the resulting story is nonsense and might include some of the story elements the group chose but many times not all or they're stuck in there as an afterthought to be sure they meet the rules. 

After we laugh about the silly story, I ask the group, would you have created a better story if I told you what I was looking for--for example, a bedtime story, a scary story, a romantic story? 

Inevitably, they say yes, because they had no idea what story they were trying to tell and only piggybacking on whatever they remembered moments before they had to add a word. And not everyone knew the character or was familiar with the location chosen so had little idea how to contribute.

I have had a couple groups, already long time team members, do a passable job of constructing something that made sense but even their stories had no plot and held no interest.

Then, I ask them, if you knew what type of story I wanted AND I gave you time to chat about it would you have created a better story? Again, the answer is yes and a bit louder this time.

Some have told me they're great storytellers and if they have time to think about it they can weave a story that holds rapt little children and adults alike. Others have told me they need a chance to collaborate and talk it through before they tell it; they just can't come up with the idea on their own.

Pride starts to win out over reticence and they want me to know they can do better.

I don't have to tell you what I say next, right? (If I do, contact me and we'll chat.)

I could talk their ears off about how important it is to have the discussion with their team, Product Owner, leaders, etc about what they're creating/building and why, but this simple game--which takes 10-20 minutes depending on the number of people--illustrates it so beautifully and simply I don't have to go that route. They get it and it resonates.

I include other games in my sessions but this is usually the first one we play; I generally use it as an ice breaker as well as a segue into why everyone should care about the stories they're working on and who wrote them and what they actually say. At the first break of the day, the feedback is usually something about how fun it was and how it made them think. 

And that is really all I could ask for from people who give me some of their time. Please think about what we're doing and talking about so you an apply it in your life.

Check out the next post for some other games I use including one I created myself.

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