The ballpoint game, with a twist

Many of you reading this maybe familiar with the ballpoint game.  For those of you who are not then it is a simple game that can be used to demonstrate scrum.

The basic rules are that you need to pass a ball from one person to another and it must go through every ones hands in the team with air time.  The ball must not be passed to your immediate neighbour and you must pass it one ball at a time, there can be many balls at the starting point but the ball must start with a designated starter and end with a designated finisher back at the same starting point.  Any ball that goes through the team without being dropped counts as one ball point.

You allow the team 1 minute to plan how they do it and provide an estimate of how many times they will be able to successfully complete a cycle in 2 minutes, they then get on and do it.

When they have completed the 2 minutes allow them time to re-plan and then iterate.  I do this 3 times.

This exercise covers the basics of scrum

  • Product owner sets the objectives and goals
  • The team understand and ask questions
  • The team plan how they will do it and estimate
  • The team implement the plan
  • A retrospective is conducted

For more detail see this link for details of the game by Boris Gloger

Now sometime ago on the yahoo scrum board when we were discussing games Angela Druckman said she added an extra iteration into the plan called the bonus round.

This was to make up a number of times that you have had one team complete the pass of balls and ask the team to try to beat it.  This number is of course fictional and much larger than the teams best in the previous 3 rounds but it is there to demonstrate to the course attendees the impact on the team being set an unrealistic challenge with constraints placed on them that they have no way to alter or influence, with unrealistic expectations being set and no buy in from the team.  This could of course be likened to teams having a software schedule forced upon them.

Now I have run this a number of times but never before had one that demonstrated the point so well as I had on the course that I run yesterday.

The team started to plan for 1 minute and got nowhere, they then started their 2 minutes and still got nowhere spending their time talking about how they might do it and second by second falling into more panic, chaos and disarray, it really was beautiful to watch, in a nice way that is knowing that the whole intention of this part of the exercise was to illicit this exact response.  The number of balls completed through the cycle was zero.

When I asked the team to reflect on what had happened they picked up on the key points that the exercise was there to create and it really did bring home the negative impact that setting unrealistic expectations, constraints they could not influence or alter and the fact they were set targets that they had no buy in too can do to a team.

If you ever run the ball point game or are thinking about doing it consider adding in this twist, you might be surprised with the results.

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