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Team Building Through Escape Room Adventures

Creating high-functioning teams

21 July 2017

As a ScrumMaster, my job does not end with facilitating meetings and removing impediments. Those tasks are merely my day-to-day work. What many people overlook is the ScrumMaster’s ability to create high-functioning teams through team building and dynamics training. I have always made sure that individuals on teams are comfortable with their teammates. This is because, while every team member has the potential to be a world-class developer, without that member having strong rapport with the rest of the group, there will always be something lacking in the team's magic.

Occasionally I bring individuals on teams together for team-building exercises. These exercises are especially important for distributed teams whose members do not see each other every day. One of the most important aspects of ensuring that teams are highly productive is to make sure that all the individuals are comfortable with each other. Throughout my career I have embraced a slew of different techniques for team building. I have always erred on the side of fun, but I don’t always feel that my point comes across as intended. However, that all changed with my most recent attempt, which was not only fun but required the team to work side by side from start to finish.

Team-building exercise: Escape room adventures

When I have a few hours to allocate to team building, I try to pick a few exercises that I believe the team will benefit from. One issue I've encountered is that the exercises didn’t flow well because there was no logical transition from one to the next. That’s when I researched alternatives and came across escape room adventures. An escape room activity consists of a group of people working as a team to solve a series of puzzles. Each puzzle will give clues that lead to the next puzzle, until the team eventually completes the entire set. My escape room exercise was held onsite but did require a significant amount of preparation. Any team member will agree that no two people work exactly the same, which is why I chose different types of exercises to allow different skill sets to shine through.

The escape room in action

The escape room was set up so that the team sat at desks arranged in a U-shape around a large screen. A wireless mouse and keyboard were placed on one of the desks. As everyone settled in for an unknown team-building event, I pulled out a USB stick and said, "OK, here it is. You can use anything in the room."

I used the USB stick to retrieve the Presentation.txt file, which was displayed on the projector. The team member closest to the keyboard and mouse took the devices and opened the file. What the team saw next was a wall of binary code. Seeming a little confused, the same individual copied the binary code and pasted it into an online translator.

The output was as follows:

“You have just entered an escape room. To win, work as a team to get through the series of puzzles. You have two hours. The clock is ticking!”

The message also instructed them to go to a website and complete the first six levels. The team was pumped for what was to come — a series of online puzzles that required digging into code to find clues. Meanwhile, I presented the team with a locked box and explained that they needed to find a set of four numbers that would allow them to unlock the box and see what was inside. This online game was not as easy as they had expected. They spent at least 40 minutes working together to figure out how to pass from one level to the next, though they were able complete the task eventually.

Finally, an image was displayed on the screen and, on closer inspection, they realized that it was a picture of a Twix candy bar wrapper. Not so coincidently, a big bag of candy was in the room as well. After making the connection, the team went through all of the Twix candy until they found one that “just felt weird.” (Prior to the meeting, I had removed the candy bar, slipped in the next puzzle, and sealed the wrapper again.) Upon opening the weird Twix bar, they found a cryptograph. The team worked together to decode the message and ultimately uncovered this: “Search for the answer to life, the universe, and everything.” After a bit of discussion, the team decided to do an online search for “The answer to life, the universe, and everything.” A search of the phrase brought up two important details: 1) The book titled The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and 2) the number 42. Again, but still not so coincidently, a pile of books was sitting in the corner of the room, one of which bore that very same title.

A team member flipped to page 42 and found a sealed envelope between the pages. They excitedly ripped open the envelope and found a small puzzle: a QR code that, when put together, would send them to their next clue. The team gathered around the puzzle and put it together in seconds. By scanning the QR code, the team opened a Wikipedia page that described the construction of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in 1173. Together, the team used that set of numbers as the combination to open the box and finish the exercise.

What’s the takeaway?

I’m sure you are thinking, “What was in the box?” or, perhaps, “How does this relate to team dynamics?” When the team opened the box, sadly there was no gold, no jewels, but only a modest congratulations on working together — and the promise of a delicious team lunch. More important, though, was the series of questions found in the box that the team could use for reflection:
  • How easy or difficult was it to work together?
  • Did you find yourself working independently, or were you able to communicate your thoughts to the group?
  • Was there anyone in the group who surprised you with his or her abilities?
  • Where did you see your own strengths and weaknesses?
  • Were you able to compensate for each other’s weaknesses?
The team formed a discussion with no help from me, and they went through each question. They expressed their excitement — and frustrations. They also gave each other kudos for a job well done.

Everyone agreed that this was a useful tool for team building. They asked me to continue to do more exercises like this, and I plan to follow through. As the ScrumMaster, I was able to observe individuals interacting with each other (i.e., my secondary objective after allowing a team with new members to work together).

Selecting a suitable team-building exercise

After completing this exercise, I too gained some new knowledge, primarily around proper preparation and activity selection. For others interested in similar activities, I would encourage you to consider developing your own, more targeted exercises as well as choosing some others have worked on, as long as they closely reflect what you are attempting to reveal to your team.

Always consider the following before selection:
  • What is the purpose of this exercise?
  • What are you hoping to accomplish?
  • Will the exercise be engaging?
  • Is the purpose of the exercise easy to understand?

Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

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