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Innovation games: Who says work can't be fun?

At Agile 2010, session attendees played professional learning games that promoted better collaborative efforts in work environments. Innovation games are facilitated workshops meant to teach managers and team members more efficient ways to brainstorm and implement project ideas.

I was one of about 100 people packed into a conference room, attending a workshop entitled, "Life's not a Beach, It's a Game." The Agile 2010 conference in Orlando, Fla. has offered many opportunities for learning agile, which added elements of fun to the mix. After all, it's in having fun together that we often build relationships, which will then build stronger teams. Luke Hohmann, CEO and Founder of The Innovation Games Company, along with Cory Foy, facilitated the workshop. We played Pruning the Product Tree, and a new game, being debuted to the public, Your Worst Nightmare.

Idea behind innovation games
Some prefer to call innovation games "facilitated workshops," perhaps worrying that shareholders would not like to think C-level executives spent their time playing "games." However, whatever you call them, they work, claims Hohmann. Based on studies of cognitive psychology and organizational development, the exercises or "innovation games" are used for such things as portfolio management, requirements management and any number of tasks that require innovative thinking, brainstorming and collaboration.

As Hohmann described the two games we would be playing in the workshop he said, "we know what we know, and we know what we don't know. These games help uncover things that we don't know we don't know." This out-of-the-box thinking is helpful in thinking beyond the conventional. It allows and encourages our minds to go outside of what we've heard of and explore possibilities that we may have never considered.

Pruning the Product Tree
In "Pruning the Product Tree," there is a flip chart, poster or visual representation of a tree. Players can place apples on the tree with a feature or a user story. The higher up on the tree that the apple is placed, the less urgent it is. This can be used for release planning, for example. Customers can be asked to play this game to help prioritize the features. As customers rearrange the apples on the tree, they think through what features are most important. In discussing the results, customers may discover reasons why they felt one feature was more important than others, that they weren't even aware of until they played the game and needed to explain their decisions and thought process. The discussion between a product owner and customers can also be enlightening to the others who have different ideas.

In the workshop, teams were asked to add features that they wanted from ALM vendors. Some of the teams had empty trees to work with, while others worked with trees that already had feature-filled apples, and simply had to rearrange the apples, with an option to add more. Hohmann noted that the trees that were empty may be a better place to start, forcing the participants to come up with features on their own, without possibly biasing them towards features that were already listed. I'd first been introduced to Pruning the Product Tree with an online version of the game through the Agile Skills Project Yahoo! Group. Cory Foy, also a member of the group, had suggested the game as a way for the group to determine our future direction. The online version allowed for distributed teaming. IM was enabled during the game and participants joked as we placed our virtual apples on the tree, having as much fun in our informal IM chat as we were having with the game. In the end, we came up with a prioritized list of what we wanted to accomplish and a strong sense of teamwork.

My Worst Nightmare
This game is one that is new to innovation games and was being premiered to the public in our workshop. Teams were given large flipchart papers, markers and other art supplies, and asked to create a visual representation of their "worst nightmare" when it came to a Scrum Master, Product Owner or developer on a Scrum team.

Our team first worked on our depiction of the worst nightmare Product Owner. He was holding a magnifying glass, depicting someone who was a micro-manager, and holding a copy of "Technology Today," indicating his insistence on using the technology du-jour, regardless of appropriateness. His raised eyebrows and wrinkled brows signaled distrust; his whip showed his constant demands for speed.

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We also drew our worst nightmare Scrum Master, a laid-back fellow who sat back with popcorn while his team slaved. Other teams drew their worst nightmares. The worst nightmare developers were often represented as a guy who sat in the corner with headphones on, refusing to communicate.

Besides allowing a little psychological venting, how is this game useful? Hohmann asked us to listen to the descriptions from the perspective of a tool provider. In understanding the "worst nightmare" of the people on the team, vendors may be able to incorporate features that would help discourage poor behaviors or encourage positive behaviors. And, of course, the game may prove useful in simply opening up for discussion challenges teams are facing and how those challenges might be addressed.

Let's play
Agile methodologies promote teaming, but forming strong teams is not easy. Innovation games can help foster the communication and collaboration required to get team results. And as an added benefit, you can even have fun!

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