Friday, July 8, 2016

Agile Musical Chairs - A Facilitation Guide

This is a fantastic game I picked up at the Agile Alliance conference in Florida a couple of years ago.  It offers deep learning with respect to self-organisation and learning cycles, and a number of people I’ve facilitated it for in conference settings have asked for a facilitation guide.
The mission of the team playing the game is to “beat the facilitator” by preventing them from sitting in a vacant chair for 1 minute.  You should allow roughly an hour for the activity.


The smallest group I have played the game with is 7, and the largest about 100.  With large numbers, you will want to break into groups of 25-30 with a facilitator per group (it’s very easy to recruit and instruct a facilitator on the spot).
To setup, you need an open space with one chair per player, one for the facilitator and plenty of room to move.  Ask each team member to grab a chair, and to randomly organise themselves in the space available.  You don’t want a regular arrangement, and certainly not an orderly circle.  You want chairs facing in multiple directions fairly evenly distributed throughout the space (some in the middle, some on the edges.


The rules are very simple.  Inform the participants that their goal is to learn about self-organisation and learning cycles.  Their goal is to block you from occupying a vacant seat for 60 seconds.  The constraints are as follows:
  • Any number of people can be moving at once to occupy the chair the facilitator is aiming for
  • Once you have stood up (or even half stood up), you cannot sit down in the same chair .. you must find a new chair to sit in.
  • The chairs cannot be moved from their starting position.
  • No physical blocking is allowed. You can’t push the facilitator out of the way or impede them from moving in their desired direction.
  • The facilitator can only move at a walk, the team can move as fast as they like. It’s not a running race, it’s a strategy game.
After each failure, the group will have exactly 60 seconds to conduct a retrospective and alter strategy before the facilitator starts moving again.

The play

You may or may not choose to warn participants they are likely to take 4 to 5 attempts just to reach 10 seconds.  Most groups will take 30-40 attempts to solve it.  You have various hints to offer along the way, with the hints later on the list being more powerful accelerators.
·       Are they hearing every voice at their retrospectives or allowing dominators?
·       Have they remembered that the game is about self-organisation (if they make the inevitable mistake of attempting to have one or two people co-ordinate)?
·       Are they trying to reinvent the wheel every retrospective?  What about making a small tweak then testing it?  It generally takes 10 seconds to decide whether a change was positive or negative (as long as it takes to fail) as opposed to debating it for 40 seconds?
·       The most important ingredient in a self-organising team is trust!  (This is usually the last hint that helps the breakthrough.  Most teams find a winning strategy then have one or two people who keep panicking and breaking it)

The Debrief

The debrief usually drives itself, however some key learnings I look to draw out are:
  • A self-organising team still needs a strategy and some agreed rules. It needs to be developed by the team to guide the way they work together.
  • The uniting power of a shared mission
  • The notion of improvement through small course corrections. A retrospective should identify a small change which can be actioned within 2 weeks, then evaluated as an input to selecting the next small change. It’s too easy to fall into the trap of large “all or nothing” changes.

Places and Times to use the activity

I most commonly use this activity as part of team formation.  It’s brilliant to run with a freshly formed team as it really unites them, drops some traditional barriers (nothing like sprinting around a room to do that) and sets the scene for what their retrospectives should feel like.  I also use it as part of release train launches (teams of teams) for similar outcomes.
Alternatively, it’s great to run with a team instead of a regular retrospective.  It will both drive some interesting reflections on how they work as a team and re-invigorate their retrospectives.

Lastly, you can use it anytime as a community building activity.