A few days ago, I had the privilege to attend another great meetup from the Agile Cambridge Exchange group, where we did an Agile games night. Lots of obvious fun, but maybe not all workplaces understand the purpose of those games in a so-called serious company context. And gamification can be a very powerful ally for teams, so we cannot afford not understanding it.
Before I dive into a small reflection on the advantages of gamification, I’ll summarise the (fun) activities we had during the meetup. Unfortunately, I was unable to play all the proposed games, as we had to choose between two options and play three games out of six in total. My choices were:
Draw toast: An exercise in Visual & Systems thinking. It consisted in drawing a flow diagram on… how to make a toast. Simple, right? Well, not quite. At the end of the (timeboxed) exercise, we displayed our work and checked other people’s views. The results were surprisingly different within its similarities. And of course, we needed to discuss the whys and realize everything we missed. A really good exercise to understand that even the simplest task can have many views… so imagine when applied to a truly complex scenario!
The Dysfunctional stand up: A formed team is assigned roles during a fake stand up based on known behaviours that can disrupt it: the one who give too much detail, the one who goes offtopic, the verbally violent, the one who does not paying attention, etc… and the game consists in assigning scrum masters who need to run the stand up, identify those behaviours and name them. I really loved this game (where I acted as a Scrum master, what a surprise), as it provides awarenessabout toxic behaviours during this very important meeting, as we all can be that guy at some point, all of it in a really relaxed, almost comical context.
Energisers and check-ins: A collection of great ice-breakers such as The mind sweep, Zip Zap Boing, Cowboys bears and ninjas, Mr. Hit or Assassins, all of them funny teamwork exercises. Showing not only that we can have pure fun working as a team, but also seeing that simple proposals can lead to vicious circled situations. I encourage you all to Google them!.
Other games played that night included Lego farm, Copy cat and The name game. Wish I could have attended those too.
It was genuinely delightful, but at the same time filled with a lot of thoughtful insights hitting the back of my mind by extrapolating their contents to real-life scenarios. I also loved the fact we played these games among individuals that didn’t really know each other too well, in a neutral place, in a relaxing atmosphere with food and drinks. It just felt right, and allowed all of us to have enough space to get to know each other properly.
Applying these games to Agile is simple: this is a good example of Gamification. The definition in Wikipedia is self-explanatory: It is the application of game-design elements and game principles in non-game contexts. It commonly employs game design elements to improve user engagement, organizational productivity, flow, learning[…]. A collection of research on gamification shows that a majority find it has positive effects on individuals.
Gamification is an oversimplification of a very complex activity that has a clear purpose and output: personal growth. Some of its clear advantages:
- Gives room for discussing serious topics in relaxed environments.
- Allow team members to test their empathy over topics they normally don’t have time to reflect on, with its corresponding learning exercise.
- Removes uprightness in processes. It is a very healthy thing to do to ridicule day-to-day work, as sometimes an office environment tends to take things very seriously, more than it is actually advised.
- It provides team-building in its purest form. This can be an activity for both introverts and extroverts.
- Produces brainstorming sessions that would not be possible in other contexts.
- It is linked to better health and stress relief, not to mention behavioural improvements.
Gamification doesn’t necessarily belong to software development but any aspect in life. It can and should be applied to everyday work, not just specific, scheduled events, for all the specified reasons mentioned above. But sadly, it still doesn’t have as much support as it should for being perceived as non-serious or for creating a false feeling of achievement.
The truth is, this can be true. Gamification, just like any other aspect in life, needs to be acknowledged and used wisely on both ends, but cannot be allowed to override the actual purpose of our work.
Also, a very common friend when we talk about gamifying the working environment is staged slavery. Make the work environment fun, and the company will guarantee your presence in the office for as much as they like.
Where do we draw the line, then? It’s really up to the team; there is no simple answer to that. I am personally a big fan of this practice and I try to apply it every time I have the chance, in everything I do or say, when I’m working. But not always I hit the target. I’ve worked in so stuck-up places that the air could be cut with a knife. And other places where gamification had reached almost the status of anarchy.
Finding a healthy balance between professionalism and gamification is something Scrum masters need to have into account for their teams. Because the one is the ally of the other. It is the little gestures that count, at all times: a chat in Skype, a comment during a retrospective, a conversation during lunch. But that shouldn’t stop there: the organisations need to understand Gamification as a productivity tool and support their employees in the way they want to apply it as long as they keep the liability of their work in progress. For example, organising Agile games nights like the one I attended. It is a good start.
Imagine for a moment working in a place where you can be objectively productive and have genuine fun at the same time, not holding back anything. That sounds pretty good, right?