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The things a game can change

By Karen L Bruns

A gamer I know said to me once, “I play all sorts of games so that I can continue to learn and evolve my gaming craft, my life strategy, and even my response to change.”  He went on to share that gaming has helped him to accept less than desirable changes with a new outlook. My first introduction to using games in my agile practice came a few years ago while I was serving as a ScrumMaster, and while I found it fun and insightful, the management team where I served did not.  Over time I have been blessed to witness firsthand the way games can change meaning, direction, even career paths.

Allow me to share a story with you.  Two years ago, I found myself attending Agile Games West 2016.  It was a one-day event with a few sessions hosting different games and fun exercises, designed to open the mind.  In the session where the game of Fluxx was being taught, I found myself faced with rapid change. If you’ve never played Fluxx, let me share in brief that the game changes rules every time the turn moves to a new person, and on occasion changes multiple times in a single player’s turn.  I like change, so I honestly thought this would be the proverbial cake walk. I could not have been more mistaken.

The facilitator was a young woman whose roots were in project management, and later agile project management.  She did an amazing job guiding participants through the numerous changes as if she were a seasoned coach. Early on in the session I found myself frustrated and even experiencing some anger and resistance to continuing to play.  As the teams were wrapping up their game, our facilitator instructed us that the next step was to conduct a retrospective at our individual game tables. During the retrospective, she walked between tables listening for teachable moments. The gamers at our table loved every minute of it, while those of us that did not play games much at all were in agony, angry and even a tad hostile in our responses.  And then it happened…our facilitator asked one very powerful question of all the tables. She asked us, “What if you were to consider how our teams feel when changes are implemented; when sometimes the changes come too soon for some of them?” BOOM! MIND BLOWN. I sat in silence for a moment as I grieved for my poor teams that were on the receiving end of so many changes of late. I had true empathy for them, but not for the team – for each individual as a flood of images almost like a movie reel played in my mind of all the emotional ways the team was trying to communicate without words, “Too much change, too fast, stop!”  

I have since used Fluxx as a teaching tool when I work with leadership and the results are quite often the same as what I experienced.  Since that day, I use games wherever I can and for different purposes. Games are great tools to place in our agile toolbox.

When games are brought into organizations during their agile journey they have the power to open the doors and windows of the mind, allowing a fresh breeze of understanding to come through; cleansing all the staleness of the environment thereby creating new avenues to explore. This is because the idea of the game in the workplace is so categorically different than how organizations are used to thinking.  Playing games helps to stop, to exhale, to laugh and to become challenged in our thoughts over everything we thought our journey was about, and can serve to show us new paths to new understanding. Games challenge us, they teach us, and they allow us to see things differently.

So here is your invitation to come play with us at Agile Games West 2018.  Bring your spirit of play and learning. While you’re on your way to join us, I invite you to ponder a thought and a few questions.  Having had a moving, even life-changing experience herself that day, that young agile project manager who taught Fluxx to a room full of gamers and non-gamers alike, quit her job to begin her journey to becoming a coach.  She sites this day as the most inspirational day of her life, and in truth has been an inspiration to me as I have watched her journey closely. What will happen for you at Agile Games West? Who will inspire you? Who will you inspire?  Check out the day’s agenda. 

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