A common question we analysts hear from our clients is, "How do we scale our Agile efforts?" Now, let's be clear: the question is not how to get Agile to work in a large project. Sure, there are challenges in making Agile work within big teams, but there's a much bigger concern. Organizations invest in Agile, or allow Agile experiments to blossom, and then try to capture the Agile magic in a bottle and mass produce it across the organization.
That's an entirely different challenge, with ambitions and uncertainties that are both Texas-sized. (I'm in Dallas, so I'll use Texas metaphors. So shoot me. Wait, no, I take that back.) The uncertainties have many faces, including (but in no way limited to) issues like:
How many projects or products should employ an Agile approach?
Can we expect our outsourcing partners to use Agile as widely as we do?
Do we need a common tools strategy to support Agile?
How much diversity of Agile approaches within teams is a good thing, and how much is counter-productive?
I'm a dedicated podcast listener, and one of my current favorites is the BBC's In Our Time. The host, Melvyn Bragg, selects a bewildering array of topics, such as Daoism, the Battle of Bannockburn, random numbers, the medieval university, and metaphor. A recent episode about the Industrial Revolution unexpectedly and unintentionally turned into a very lively discussion about the sources of invention, a topic that's near and dear to application development and delivery professionals.
Here's the punch line to this discussion: Not everyone's brain is ready to conjure up new ideas, so you need a catalyst. And here's the connection to this blog: serious games can be that catalyst. Our brains regularly need to be shaken up this way, during both those magisterial moments when we're trying to look over the horizon and the more desperate moments when, as I discuss in a new study, we need to dig ourselves out of a hole.
As readers of this blog know, I have a keen interest in serious games. Among other virtues, they provide a way to deal with tough circumstances by changing the way team members interact. In an upcoming research document on the subject, I relate the story of a development team that had to rewrite a creaky old application from scratch. Which features did the team need to re-implement right away? By running a serious game with the stakeholders, the team pinpointed which features were essential and why.
Democracy is great, right? We'd all prefer to have direct participation in the decisions that affect our lives, from which multimillionaire will represent us common folk to which features we'd like to see in the next version of Microsoft Office. (Please, please, PowerPoint team, just copy Keynote's auto-align feature already.) The more voting we do, the more we feel that civilization has advanced, and the better the quality of the products or politicians we get.
Polls Are Valuable But Inadequate
In recent years, application development teams have grown increasingly open minded, and in many cases even enthusiastic, about voting or polls as a prioritization mechanism. Worried that your requirements rely too heavily on interviews with a potentially unrepresentative sample of users? Take a quick poll to get a more accurate estimate of real demand for the work you might do.
One peril that holds special relevance to application development (or product development in general) is the missing part of the sample. By their nature, polls omit the customers you think you should have but don't yet have.
Recently, the city of San Jose used a serious game, Buy A Feature, to address some tough budgetary challenges. Since serious games have relevance across a wide range of contexts, including application development and delivery, it's worth relating one anecdote from San Jose's exercise that demonstrates the importance of having a shared vision.
I was a "facilitator" for this exercise, which involved more than 100 members of the community, plus a couple dozen city officials, including Mayor Chuck Reed. According to the ground rules of this exercise, organized by Innovation Games, each group of several community members had to decide which municipal projects (libraries, parks, school programs, fire, police, etc.) to fund and which not to. These "wish list" items formed List A. A complementary List B included other projects that the participants could decide to cut and then shift the money into projects from List A.
Every participant had a small amount of money, but not enough to buy anything from List A outright. Funding anyone's favored project, therefore, required investment from more than one person. Money from any List B project was available only if everyone at the table agreed to cut it.
Undoubtedly, when you read the title of this blog post, you thought, "But politicians are users." No, I'm not talking about that kind of user. Instead, I'm thinking of the user we normally discuss around these parts, the kind of person whom product managers and product marketers try to understand, but often don't.
The 10Questions Project posed questions from salt-of-the-earth, ordinary folk to California senatorial candidates Carly Fiorina and Barbara Boxer. It's a noble failure, a change of medium that had no discernible effect on the quality of message. The candidates' answers are exactly the sort of vague, high-level statements that are more about sentiment (what candidates hint they might do) than policy (what they'd actually do).
These frustrating YouTube snippets resemble the kind of bad answers that users often give when PMs ask them questions like, "So, what would you like to see in the next release?" The reasons for the uselessness of the answers are the same, too:
IBM recently launched CityOne, a serious game that poses the kinds of questions about water, power, finance, and retail that city planners face daily. It's a powerful tool for a B2B company like IBM to market its products and services in a way that engages the customer more deeply, making the company's value proposition more clear and compelling.
The BPM game, INNOV8, demonstrated that a serious game can translate a dry and complex subject like BPM into something more interesting and vivid. It appeals to human psychology in a way that even the best white paper can't. Humans are visual creatures, so it's often more effective to show us a principle in action rather than talk about it. A serious game like INNOV8 pushes other buttons in our brains, too. For example, there's a higher probability that someone will finish playing a game than reading a white paper. If the game succeeds at keeping your attention, you want to see it through its conclusion.
Two recent articles from The New York Times illustrate why, for innovation to work, you need to keep updating your playbook.
Serious Games And Biochemical Research
When a team of researchers at the University of Washington wanted to unlock the puzzle of protein folding – a complex process that moves faster than we can observe – they decided to crowdsource the investigation. The team posed the question as a serious game, a medium that sometimes produces better answers than what people normally envision as the process of crowdsourcing.
Instead of just throwing out the question (How do our bodies build these proteins?) to an anonymous audience that may or may not have been motivated to answer it, the researchers built a game, Foldit, that simulated the protein-building process. The motivations were no different than any game: the satisfaction of beating the game at some level; the score that both rewards you for your current level of accomplishment and dares you to do better; the public standings that inject another level of competition beyond beating your last score. Humans can be very competitive creatures, even when the only rewards are intangible, which is why certain types of serious games often stimulate more participation than other approaches to a problem. (Check out the book Drive by Daniel Pink for one explanation of this behavior.)
As readers of this blog know, I see a lot of benefits in using serious gaming to make better product and development decisions. Consulting firms like Enthiosys and Booz Allen Hamilton use different serious gaming approaches, but they ultimately have the same aim: Avoid the traps that we mere humans frequently make, even when confronted with a wealth of facts and reasonable arguments. The bigger the decision – for example, What will make us more competitive in the next five years? How do we make sense of all these enhancement requests? Should we pursue a new market? – the greater the need to guard against groupthink, the loudest voice in the room, information overload, and other common decision-making pitfalls.
While I could (and have) provided examples from business, an equally compelling example comes from politics. One of the offshoots of Enthiosys' work with businesses is Games For Democracy, a charitable foundation that, as the name implies, applies serious gaming techniques to political decision-making. A good example is healthcare, the topic of a Games For Democracy exercise using the "Buy A Feature" game. Each participant had a limited amount of faux money to invest in different healthcare options, such as the public option, a mandate for personal health insurance, and cost containment measures. No one had enough money to buy any option outright, so horse-trading among participants was mandatory.