What the Agile Community Can Teach Us About Failure

Our Director of Training and Facilitation, Ryan Burwell, recently brought the Failure Toy to Play4Agile North America, and learned a lot about the ways in which play, Agile Methodology, and conversations about risk and failure all fit together.

Bringing Agile Methodology to teams can be uncomfortable

If team members aren’t used to a work environment that encourages iteration, continuous improvement, and fast feedback, adopting Agile methods can be met with resistance. Plus, we can all be creatures of habit, and Agile can be a big shift from the “usual” way of doing things. As many of the Agile facilitators and Scrum leaders have told us, the change is worth it, but it doesn’t happen overnight. Our experience playing with a group of Agile facilitators really highlighted some of the ways that the Failure Toy can help people to practice some of the key features of Agile through play!

Continuous Improvement

One of the ideas at the core of Agile methods is the idea of responding to change, instead of sticking to a single plan for a project. Value is placed on a willingness to iterate instead of carefully getting something “right” on the first try. We don’t often reward iteration in formal education systems. We don’t usually highlight all of the iterations and failures that lead to a successful business or product either; we celebrate the end product, without always looking at the prototypes and failed versions that came first. The Failure Toy helps to highlight the power of iteration because if you don’t test things in the game, they tend to fail when you least expect it. As a student pointed out in one of our workshops:

“If you just plan your strategy without actually trying it out, then you don’t know if it’s just a terrible strategy or if it’s going to work.”

The debrief after playing the toy is also critical, not only because it allows players to draw insights from the specific game, but because it gets teams in the habit of reflecting on and improving the process and in addition to the outcome of a project.

Focus on Individuals and Interactions

Instead of finding an app for everything, Agile Leadership is focused on making every interaction an opportunity to learn more about your teammates or customers. The Failure Toy is 100% player-powered; from the way that the game turns out to the possible scores, to the insights that players gain, everything changes depending who is playing. The toy helps players learn about the ways in which their teammates respond to failure, and invites conversation about the ways in which some of us may be more risk averse, more uncomfortable with failing in front of our peers, or more willing to experiment. The Failure Toy isn’t designed to get people thinking about an abstract or general image of failure; players are invited to consider their individual relationships to failure, and the way their team or group feels about failure. These insights can then be used to better understand future interactions and decisions about projects.

Ready, Set, Sprint!

The Failure Toy games are set up much like a traditional Scrum sprint. Yes, it’s a very fast sprint, just 5 minutes long, but you still take time to plan, and of course to reflect on progress or success at the end. Instead of having people experience this type of structure for the first time on an actual project or software update, the Failure Toy allows teams to practice some of the elements on something where much less is at stake. When did communication become difficult? Was there a tendency to stick to plans even when they weren’t working? Did people raise concerns or feel comfortable providing feedback? Noticing these behaviours while playing allows for an open conversation among team members, allowing them to go into their projects with more self-awareness.

Iteration: Keep, Kill or Build

After the first round of gameplay players are assigned to new teams. Each player is bringing different experiences and different sets of points to the new round; each player has something different at stake. These newly formed teams must now work on a Failure Toy structure that has been created by a previous group, and they have a choice to make: do they keep, kill, or build?

If a team ends up with a structure that they feel good about, they have the option to keep it exactly the way it is, and just watch the clock run down. Teams can also decide that their inherited structure isn’t worth developing, and choose to kill the project and start over. Lastly, teams can look at the structure and build on it, making adjustments and improvements based on the structure as it stands.

Each option can open some powerful conversations connected to Agile methods, posing questions like:

  • What decision did your team make, and how was that decision made?

  • What were the risks and opportunities associated with each of the options you considered, and how did you discover them?

  • How did you organize your group? Who was making decisions?

  • If you were to play this game again, would you make the same decision? Why or why not?

Responding to Failure

No matter what choice the players make over various rounds of playing with the Failure Toy, they’ll be confronted with some of the things that can make Agile methodology uncomfortable. For example, accountability is essential on Agile teams, but it can feel like there is a fine line between accountability and blame. What does feedback and accountability look like on your team? Even teams that celebrate a “fail fast, fail often” mentality can feel the sting of failure when they’re invested in a project, so how do you address that as part of the process? What kind of mistakes and failures are you encouraging, and which ones do you want to avoid? It can be a lot easier to have these conversations about a toy than an actual project that has just failed, and discussing them with your team proactively opens the door for them to be ongoing.

Ready to Play?

If you’re an Agile facilitator, Scrum master, or a project manager who is looking to bring some of these concepts to your team, now is the ideal time to invest in a Failure Toy of your own! Take advantage of our pre-order discount on our shop!

Failure Toy™ Workshops

Now Available! Take your team on a playful exploration of the challenges and opportunities that come with failure.

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