You’re Invited!! – An Agile Game

June 25, 20105 min

A colleague of mine, Deb Hartman Preuss (@deborahh), tweeted “I have a strange job: getting things to happen in other people’s minds, bodies, hearts. Kind of like the faith healer who doesn’t touch you.” and it struck a chord with me.  A lot of what I do as consultant is help open people’s minds to new ideas and look at their actions, which is why I use a lot of games and simulations.  In my experience, games and simulations help people get into a safe space where they can reflect on their behaviors and understand why they might want to change.

One of my favorite games to help people understand the corrosive effect of push systems and working in silos is the “Invitation Game” created by Chris Sims at the Agile Learning Labs.  In this game, participants are asked to make three invitations to a party with six steps to complete (see below).  The game is played in two rounds and they are timed.

  1. Fold the paper in half
  2. Put a smiley face on the front
  3. Write “You’re invited!” on the inside
  4. Add your signature
  5. Put a sticker\stamp on the back
  6. Deliver the invitation

In the first round, individuals are teamed in groups of six and each person is given one step to do.  When they complete ALL their work, they hand-off their eighteen unfinished invitations to the next station; i.e. after folding all 18 sheets of paper, the next person makes 18 smiley faces and then passes along to the third person on the team.  Normally, the completed invitations look something like this – all look the same and are sloppy.

In addition, as an observer what you see is a lot of waiting around – due to the constraints of the game only one person can work on the invitations at a time and all the rest are waiting for their handoff – and not a lot of value being generated until the very end.  Another interesting observation is what inactive participants are doing while the active person is doing their task.  Sometimes they are giving helpful, unsolicited advice to the active person on how to do their job.  Things such as “Hurry up”, “You can fold six of them at a time”, “You don’t need such fancy face”, etc., etc.  Sometimes the inactive people are just waiting around with nothing to do or talking to another inactive participant.  If you ask the participants about the experience, they normally say it was stressful and they felt a lot of pressure.  The term “fun” is not mentioned at all.  IME, teams usually deliver their invitations somewhere between 12 to 15 minutes.

In the second round, we change the rules of the game a bit.  Each person is responsible for making three invitations, they have to make a complete invitation and deliver it before moving on to the next one.  We also time when the first invitation is delivered as well as the when the last one is delivered.  Here are the typical results from the second round.

What you see here is a really interesting and creative stack of invitations.  During the entire game people are relaxed and enjoying themselves.  You also see individuals looking at other people’s work for inspiration and drawing on new ideas.  People experiment more.  Many times, while waiting for the entire team to finish other team members will start additional invitations and deliver extra value to the customer.  Finally, if you look at the statistics, i.e. the timings, you see the second round really shine.  The customer gets value within the first two minutes and all the invitations for all teams in delivered 8 to 10 minutes – a productivity increase of nearly 50%!

When both rounds are complete, I lay out all the invitations on the table and ask the participants which invitations a customer would want.  The answer is always the same, the invitations from the second round.  The second round invitations are just so much more interesting and creative than the first.  In addition, by delivering the items one-at-time when completed, the customer gets more opportunity to provide feedback to the team on what they really want (or don’t want) in their invitations.  If the customer finds an interesting variation – they can sell it right away, show it to their stakeholders and\or ask the team to make more (“I need more invitations with stickers of ponies.”).

I also ask which round is more like everyday work and the answer is again very predictable – the first round.  In the first round of typical batch\handoff work, the customer is obligated to accept the invitations delivered even if they are sloppy, low quality and don’t meet their needs.  What would their management and stakeholders say if the customer asked for the resources (12 to 15 minutes) to make another batch of crappy invitations?  They already spent 12 to 15 minutes of six people’s time.  They can’t go back and ask for another set.  In the batch\handoff work, there is so much waste of time where people sit around doing nothing.  Fortunately, people display a great degree of ingenuity and find something to occupy their time – criticizing and interfering with the work of the people who come after them.  A very typical behavior in most organizations.