An Agile Game – Management by Walking Around
Timing: 10-15 minutes with debriefs
Group Size: 10-50 students
Setup: A room with a fair amount of potential obstacles (e.g. tables and chairs) and masking tape defining a boundary around the room just wide enough to allow for movement by participants. You'll also need a timer.
Round One Instructions:
1. Ask students to pair up and decide who will be the Manager. The other person will be a Worker.
2. Describe a silly scenario that justifies the boundary, such as, "We’re tracing possible paths through a space station, and the tape defines the walls," or "We’re simulating traffic within a small section of Manhattan."
3. Tell students that their goal is to take 60 steps.
4. Tell the Manager to direct the Worker’s movement, using one of these commands:
- Go forward (full strides, no walking in place)
- Turn right (90 degrees)
- Turn left (90 degrees)
5. The Manager must track the number of steps taken.
6. Set the timer for one minute and begin the exercise.
7. While the exercise is underway, walk around and act as a general blocker (moving things in people’s way, standing in inconvenient spots with a vacant look, etc.).
Round One Debrief:
Ask a few Managers how many steps were taken. They will often be unsure, given the general chaos of the exercise.
Ask a few Managers how they felt. They will likely feel stressed and ineffective. Micromanagement at this level takes a lot of time and energy, but rarely pays off in efficient processes.
Ask a few Workers how they felt. They will generally turn their brains off, demonstrating that when people are given orders, they will simply follow them rather than think for themselves. This is a key point: True engagement requires empowerment and autonomy.
Note that the room was very noisy and chaotic.
Round Two Instructions:
1. Dissolve the pairs; everyone is now a Self-Managing Worker.
2. The goal is the same: to take 60 steps.
3. Ask everyone to count their own steps.
4. Set the timer for one minute and begin the exercise.
5. Act as a roving blocker, just as in the last round.
Round Two Debrief:
Note that more steps were taken, and more than likely, most participants achieved their goal. Empowerment at lower levels provides more bandwidth to get work done.
Note that this round was probably largely silent, and ask why. Clear goals and simple rules allow everyone to easily make their own decisions without undue intervention or discussion.
Ask whether anyone noticed patterns forming. The group probably quickly fell into a series of loops, illustrating how complex and effective patterns can emerge in the absence of centralized planning when goals and boundaries are clear.
You might also choose to point out that checking in on such a process at stable intervals (e.g. every minute, in this exercise, or every Sprint in Scrum) would create ample opportunities to inspect and adapt the team’s approach, while limiting the investment of time and budget during any given interval. The major takeaway from this exercise is that risk management and efficiency are better achieved through a system with highly visible goals and clear rules for participation as opposed to direct management intervention in lower-level tasks.
I hope this has been helpful! Please let me know if you’re looking for a specific topic or point to illustrate with an exercise, and I'll try to address your requests in future posts.