Monday, September 08, 2014

Shall We Play A Game

If you are coming from the traditional side of the house and you are probably all too familiar with the types of training classes, workshops and conference sessions where you have the opportunity to hone your ability to sleep with your eyes open while someone stands at the front of the room and reads slides to you. My most memorable (worst) experience with this was a lecture at a project management convention where one presenter read the words on each of his slides to the audience while his co-presenter sat next to him doing email… FOR AN HOUR. At some point you have to ask yourself… is this any way to learn?
For a number of years now the way people teach, and learn has been changing. In general, people tend to learn, and retain a little more when you give them something to do, and even more so when they have the chance to arrive at the light bulb moments on their own.
Last month I sat in on a class where I watched a friend of mine lead a group of technology professionals through an exercise where each team was offered the following supplies:
  • 20 sticks of spaghetti
  • One yard of tape
  • One yard of string
  • One marshmallow
The game was simple; whichever team was able to build the tallest freestanding structure in 18 minutes, with the marshmallow on top, wins. During the 18 minutes the team members collaborated on trying different techniques to determine what the most effective approach to a relatively stable structure might be. There were moments when it took turns being comical and heartbreaking, but in the end, a clear winner emerged… so what does that have to do with working in IT? The Marshmallow Challenge was created by Tom Wujec to help teams learn lessons about creative collaboration and innovation.
To the uninitiated, activities like this can seem a bit off-putting at first. In my own experience teaching PMs, I find that often times, the desire of the room is “feed my brain, don’t make me interact, and let me go stumble through this on my own”. That is certainly one way to go about it, but more often than not, those same class participants end up discovering that by actually getting involved with their classmates, and collaborating on something fun, can lead to unexpected and very valuable lessons they would not have learned in a straight up lecture style class.
These types of games are very common in Agile trainings. Organizations like Luke Hohmann’s Conteneo  have focused their efforts on promoting Innovation Games  as a great way of enabling organizations of knowledge workers to deepen their learning experience. These types of games extend well beyond the class room and are used by many organizations as a way of learning more about their business, how to collaborate and interact in a collaborative, and highly creative manner.
Having trouble understanding what isn’t working with your existing products or service offerings? Maybe a little SpeedBoat would help. Does your organization want to get a simple taste of what it would be like to switch to Scrum? Head over to Agile42 and try the Scrum Lego City game. If you are having trouble understanding how to cope with the challenges you are facing with Distributed Teams, TastyCupcakes is where you’ll find the Epic Bedtime Story. And if you want to get some practice at helping a cross-functional team get better at continuously improving how they work together, you might try my personal favorite, Flavio Steffens The Airplane Factory Game.
Warning, if you believe that anyone who ever built paper airplanes as a child will have retained that skill as they reached adulthood, you may find this exercise a little soul crushing. Unless you are in France, where each paper airplane is like a beautiful work of engineering and art… it’s flying them that is the problem.
While most of these games were initially designed to be done in a setting where everyone was physically present, many of them are now available in online versions as well.
In each of these games, what helps people reach moments of insight is the creative learning play that occurs through working together in a fun atmosphere. Whether you are putting together a class, or just trying to discover a new way to help a group of professionals come up with unique solutions to a business problem, the collaborative play these games offer is a great way to find those light bulb moments.

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