Scrum Games

Participatory Activities that Illustrate Scrum Principles and Practices

1 December 2008

Michael de la Maza
Dynamics Research Corporation

Three years ago I learned how to fly a plane. Before I got into the cockpit, I read books and magazines and watched videos on flying. I spoke to pilots about their experiences. I attended aero club meetings. But nothing prepared me for the vertigo and nausea I felt on my first flight or the terror I experienced when night flying. 
Like flying, Scrum cannot be learned solely from a book or from a presentation. It must be experienced. Great Scrum trainers and coaches lead their teams through a wide mix of activities that illustrate Scrum practices and principles to give their teams the opportunity to learn by doing.

One of the key Scrum principles is teamwork: the team cannot be a collection of individuals each pursuing their own interests. This concept is, unfortunately, foreign to many work environments. In contrast, a Scrum team coordinates its activities during various meetings, including the daily scrum and the planning meeting, and through the use of many artifacts, such as the burndown chart.

The ESP (extrasensory perception) game is a very simple game that I have found to be very effective in highlighting the importance of teamwork and in sparking discussions about its value.

ESP Game

The ESP game should be played after the team has gone through a Scrum planning exercise and is familiar with sprints. I have found that at this stage there are many doubts about the necessity and benefits of the various Scrum meetings.  I often find that the team wants to skip or modify a meeting.  The ESP game illustrates the key point that if the team does not explicitly invest in teamwork and communication, it will suffer. The game can also be played during the retrospective meeting by teams that have already implemented Scrum to spur discussion about teamwork and communication.

The ESP game is played as follows:

  1. The participants are divided into pairs. If the group has an odd number of people then the trainer or coach should play.
  2. Each person is given a set of five to fifteen cards. All sets of cards should be the same. These cards can be standard playing cards, planning poker cards, or index cards created for this game.
  3. Each person in each pair selects one card and slides it into the middle. Once both cards are in the middle they are turned over. The players can only show one card at a time.
  4. If the two cards match then each player gets a point.
  5. The game continues until all cards are exhausted.
  6. When all cards match, the gae is over. If any cards did not match, then the game is repeated.

During the game, the players are not allowed to communicate verbally or non-verbally. They can only communicate through the cards. The players are not allowed to write on the cards or mark them.

Once all pairs of players have finished (i.e., their cards match for the entire deck), then the pairs can be grouped together to form sets of four people and the ESP game can be repeated. The players receive a point only if all four cards match. Smaller groups can continue to be grouped until all of the players are in one large group.
 
Note that while there may be many logical ways to sort the cards (in numerical order, in alphabetical order, etc.), the greatest challenge is in agreeing on the order without any sort of meta discussion. If, in the first round, one player sorts the cards in high to low order and the other player sorts them in low to high order, neither player will know whether to repeat the original order or to switch orders in the second round. Typically, one player will eventually follow the order selected by the other player. When the pairs are then grouped together the leader/follower behavior must change because each pair has a leader and, unless the order happens to match, one of them must follow.

Discussion

When the activity is completed, invite the participants to engage in a discussion. Here are some questions that often spark conversation:

  1. What did you learn?
  2. How much simpler would the ESP game be if you could speak with the other player?
  3. In your current work environment do you ever feel that you are playing the ESP game? If so, why?
    • What Scrum meetings and artifacts ensure that you will not fall into the trap of coordinating your work effort by playing the ESP game?
    • What might happen if you eliminate these Scrum meetings and artifacts?
  4. In your current environment...
    • How do people coordinate their work?
    • Is coordination a first-class object?
    • How often do coordination problems occur?
    • Is teamwork highly valued?
    • Is the team in sync?
    • How are promises and expectations managed?
    • How does the team respond to coordination failures?
  5. How can your team improve its teamwork?

Scrum games such as the ESP game serve to illustrate the value of Scrum principles and practices. I encourage you to use them when introducing a traditional team to Scrum. Even high performance Scrum teams enjoy playing these games during the sprint retrospective!

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Comments

Don McGreal, CSM, 12/2/2008 3:31:32 PM
Very interesting Michael. I am a huge proponent of using games like these to communicate values and principles that are very hard or impossible to learn from a book or lecture. This very much applies to the Agile values and principles.
My fellow colleagues and I been collecting and sharing games like these to use with our clients onsite or in the classroom.
We've put together a very interesting presentation about it called the Agile Playground which we've been delivering all over North America (Agile 2008, AgileDotNet conference in Dallas, Agile Vancouver, and several APLN meetings).
For more information on how to play these games, you can check them out on our wiki at http://www.tastycupcakes.com
Lyssa Adkins, CSC,CSP,CSM,CSPO, 12/5/2008 4:24:40 PM
Thank you both, Michael and Don. Great ideas for learning games both in this article and at Tasty Cupcakes (I just *had* to type that name).
Helen de la Maza, CSM, 6/20/2010 6:03:17 PM
Michael:

I think you may be missing a step in the description of the game. I think Step 2.5 needs to be "players sort their cards individually and without talking to their partner."

-Helen

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