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Avoid the Pandemic: Save the World with Scrum

06/17/2013 by Doug Snyder

Can your Scrum team save the world? Try this team-building exercise with the cooperative board game Pandemic.

Diagnosis: A high-performing team

One of the key responsibilities of the ScrumMaster is providing the necessary leadership to form a group of individuals into a high-performing team. Such a team consists of people who work together to attain a common goal and are able to achieve extraordinary results. This happens through the creation of a solid foundation for:

  • Productive communication
  • Innovative solutions
  • Great performance

In The Wisdom of Teams, Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith identified qualities of a high-performance team that include:

  • A complementary mix of skills, experience, and expertise
  • Acknowledgment of joint accountability toward a common purpose in addition to individual obligations to specific roles and tasks
  • Work approaches, procedures, and processes that ensure tasks are accomplished efficiently and effectively
  • Shared leadership

The concept of shared or personal leadership is of particular interest within Scrum teams. Cultivating this type of leadership is challenging, as there tend to be team members who gravitate toward command and control and other team members who are content to follow. In such team situations, there is a clear and present danger of losing an innovative idea or approach because the natural followers don't take the necessary personal initiative required to drive out their ideas.

To help guide my team toward high performance, I wanted to illustrate these ideas with a great team-building exercise. However, research on team building failed to turn up just the right exercise. I did find some excellent thoughts on what makes a great exercise at New & Improved. The newsletter highlights the following elements:

  • A training method that eliminates the hierarchy of physical prowess
  • A training method that equalizes team members in a new and unusual environment
  • A training method that presents simple challenges, requiring group members to behave in mature and productive ways, and yet still results in failure to achieve success

The last point actually comes from lessons learned from Outward Bound, a group that runs adventure-based team building. They found that successful "adventure challengers" rapidly reverted to "business as usual" groups upon return to the workplace. However, they're finding that failure to achieve success in a "simple" challenge actually yields vigilance for unproductive behaviors where former adventure-based methods yield overconfidence. The real key to moving the team forward based on lessons learned from the exercise is in employing a skillful debriefing around relationship dynamics.

Administration: Perform the exercise

These ideas lead to the idea of having the team play Pandemic, a cooperative board game. In this game, team members take on the roles of specialists working for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The goal is to discover the cure to four diseases before epidemic outbreaks occurring in various cities throughout the world evolve into a worldwide pandemic that destroys all of humanity. To learn more about this game and see how it's played, watch Big Bang Theory's Wil Wheaton on an episode of the Web series TableTop.

For our team-building exercise, I presented the rules of the game and observed as the teams played. Since I wanted the teams to fail, I set the game up at its most difficult level by inserting six epidemic cards into the player card deck. In the Wil Wheaton video, he allows the players to play with open hands so everyone in the game can see what cards everyone else has. One of my goals of the Scrum team-building exercise was to underscore the need for effective communication. As such, I required each of the players to keep the cards in their hands hidden to simulate knowledge that only they may have during a Scrum project. However, they were free to communicate at any time the cards they had in their hand. After all, the most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is through face-to-face conversation.

In the game, there are five specialist roles and each player selects one of these to perform during the game. This is likely to be similar to your Scrum team, in which certain members may have stronger skills in one area than in another. I have team compositions containing senior members, junior members, staff employees, and contract developers. As such, the junior members or contract developers have a tendency to defer to more senior team members. In addition, senior team members tend to be more dismissive to the ideas of other team members. In this exercise, I wanted to turn that tendency around. To do so, I assigned the stronger or more important specialist roles, the medic and the scientist, to the nonsenior team members. The senior team members chose from the dispatcher, researcher, and operations expert roles.

Just like any good ScrumMaster would, after teaching the rules I got out of the way to let the team do its thing. I was just there to make sure they did not break any of the rules and that they adhered to the process. And, oh yes, there was one rule I purposely left out: In the game, after the team cures a disease, any player treating that disease can do so following the same rule used by the medical specialist. This can be a powerful mechanism to help avoid further outbreaks of the disease. While I did not mention the rule, I did give each player one of the player aid cards that come with the game and that does include the rule.

Treatment: Addressing team dynamics

To facilitate the discussion around team dynamics, I prepared a list of discussion questions. These questions were devised to address topics that I felt were holding the team back.

  • Did you like your role?
  • Why or why not?
  • Do you think your special abilities were used to their maximum for the team?
  • How does this compare to your role on our Scrum team?
  • Were there times in the game that it made sense to take actions that were not enhanced by your special abilities?
  • Are you doing this in our sprints?
  • Do you think you took the right actions at the right time?
  • Is this always happening in our sprints?
  • Did the actions you performed hurt or help the group? How did this make you feel?
  • Do you think you were able to make enough of a contribution to help the team meet the goal?
  • Are you able to do this on our Scrum team?
  • Did everyone give the same amount of input during the game?
  • Do you feel you are able to give sufficient input in our sprints?
  • Were any of your ideas rejected by the team? If so, how did you feel? Did you stop giving ideas?
  • Did your group waste a lot of time trying to decide what to do next?
  • How did the team decide where to go and what to do?
  • What is the hardest part about group decision making?
  • Would you have been able to win the game all by yourself?
  • How does working as a team make things easier for each person?
  • If you played this game again, what would you do differently?

In the ensuing discussions, both teams that played the game identified some important aspects of Scrum that were present:

  • The team was empowered to do whatever it wanted to within the rules set forth by the game, which is similar to how the team is to work within the light framework we must follow for doing Scrum.
  • There was constructive disagreement over which actions were the best to perform.
  • The ultimate choice of the actions performed was consensus driven.
  • Everyone was committed to team success.
  • The trust everyone had that all team members would do whatever it took to win motivated the team to follow the decisions made by the team and to try to win the game.

While neither team successfully saved all of humanity, the teams did perform differently. Team 2 seemed to fare better because it spent more time understanding the special abilities of each player role and had a little planning/brainstorming discussion about how they could use those abilities before starting the game. Also, during the game they not only discussed what they thought were the best actions for the current player to perform but also how that would relate to the actions that could be performed by the next couple of upcoming players. They were replanning and continually brainstorming during the game, reacting to the current situation, being adaptable, and determining the best actions each person could perform to maximize the team's chances for success. Team 2 also did better with ensuring that there was timely communication. In the end, we all agreed that their approach served as an example of why our teams needed to be doing a little more planning/design for the technical solutions associated with each of the user stories we're bringing into the sprints.

One of my favorite aspects of the exercise was seeing the commitment and focus the two teams put toward winning the game. If someone made a suggestion and it wasn't used, or if they wanted to perform an action but the team thought otherwise, no one took it personally. No one made a big deal over changes or was mad that they had to go down a different path than they expected. We have not always had that in our sprints, and this helped the group recognize that team members are taking their work too personally. Instead, team members need to adjust what they're doing in a more positive way to provide maximum benefit in helping the team meet the goal of completing sprints successfully.

My favorite moment of the exercise was when a team member discovered the rule I had purposely left out. At first there was a little unhappiness with the ScrumMaster, until a team member chimed in with, "Hey, that's just like our Scrum project. The ScrumMaster may not know all of the information or all of the answers." The expectation of the team that the ScrumMaster was going to provide all the answers led to a situation where all the actions were being used to their full advantage. This invalid assumption impacted the team's performance on the exercise. It also gave the ScrumMaster an opportunity to underscore the necessity of shared leadership in Scrum.

The Cure

Overall, the exercise and team discussion was very successful with my teams. If you decide to perform this exercise, take some time to think about where your team needs help. You'll be able to find elements of the Pandemic game to help illustrate your points. Instead of using my questions, devise your own around the topics your team needs to discuss.

With this type of team building, you will be able to help your team members become better Scrum practitioners as well as move a little closer toward becoming a high-performance team.