I used to play the famous Ball Point Game  when providing Scrum training or introducing the Agile and Scrum way of working in teams. Now with all the remote sessions and training’s I created a nice and energetic online replacement. Instead of tennis balls the participants choose an object everyone have. For example a pen.

The learning goals are:

  • learn to estimate
  • feel how it is to be in flow
  • experience the power of the retrospective
  • what is velocity (after the game)

Time needed

Between 15-20 minutes. Depending how long your debriefing is.

What do you need

  • Zoom, Microsoft teams or other tool for online meetings.
  • Everybody needs a webcam
  • All microphones are on.
  • Facilitator needs a timer (phone or stopwatch). Something you can show in front of your webcam.
  • A piece of paper and pencil, to write down the estimation and finished (done) results for the iterations.

Rules and gameplay

You as trainer, coach or facilitator play’s the role of the Product Owner. You explain the rules, say you hope they do as much pen cycles as possible and wish them good luck.
The rules are:

  • Everyone is part of one big team
  • There are a total of four iterations (sprints)
  • Pass an object as often as possible during 1 iteration
  • On the screen, the same object should appear to everyone
  • A maximum of 1 person at a time has the object in view
  • Screen in = screen out (It looks like passing it (handing over) to the next person)
  • If everyone has passed the item (using the above rules), the team has earned 1 point

1. Allow the team two minutes of preparation time to determine how they will organize themselves.

2. Get an estimate from the team of how many balls they can pass through the system. You as facilitator write down their estimation before every sprint and the results after the sprint. You do not count the cycles (but do NOT say you do no counting). The team is self-organizing and there is no manager who is doing the counting reporting for them. Many times the first or second sprint nobody counts the cycles. Good input for the debriefing.

3. One minute sprint. Count down to start en start the timer.
Show the timer in front of your webcam to the group.

4. One minute retrospective for the team. What went well and how to improve the proces for the next sprint.

5. Run 4 sprints. The original game is 5 iterations. But as far as I know now.. online with a pen there are less options to improve.

6. After the last sprint debrief with the group. Questions to ask are:

  • How was this experience?
  • Did you feel a kind of flow?
  • What is a good pace (sprint results), without to much pressure and to keep the fun?
  • Do you think you where able to reach the same top score with extra preparation time at the beginning and no retrospective in between?
  • Show them the results. What kind of improvements did they do?
  • The results also gives an insight about their predictability. Mostly you see that they become better in predicting their results.
  • Were there bottlenecks?
  • How was the communication between them?
  • Feel free to ask more or other questions.

Options

Tweak the game for your own fit.

  • If you have a big group, you can make the sprint length longer. Maybe 2 minutes. I did this exercise with 4 people for the first time, one minute was perfect.
  • In the 3th or 4th sprint you can act like a pushing Product Owner. If they suggest 20 cycles/points, you ask for more. Say something like “other teams do 30 cycles” or “the world record is 30“.
    If this exercise is part of a Scrum training, do this game after you have explained that the Development Team has the authority to decide how much stories (points) they will do in a sprint. You hope they will say “No” to the pushing Product Owner. If not, you have extra input for the debriefing.
    My experience with the original ball point game is that by asking more, the group also starts thinking outside the box. Every group creates a kind of system, and sticks to this system. By changing the boundaries of the system more points (cycles) are possible.

I love to hear other experiences and other options for this online game.

3 thoughts on “The online pencil challenge”

  1. @Rainer Yes indeed, you give the pencil to the person next, above or under you. And this next person has to pick up the pencil on the right place en pass it through. So it must look like you really give the pen to another person. But in most tools this is a big challenge, because mostly every participant have their own order of screens (how they see the others).
    In the first round they discover that they think the next person is beside, but actually this person can be under you in the other persons screen.
    Mistakes are:
    -Two persons show at the same time the object
    -In the wrong part of the screen picking up the object
    -It is not the same object
    -Maybe there are more mistakes possible?

    @GlobalPM Looking forward to your experience. And what you say is right. Once everyone in the team “passes” this around virtually on Zoom, it is one point

  2. So, essentially it is considered passing on to the next team member if they just show the item, such as the pen, on the screen? Once everyone in the team “passes” this around virtually on Zoom, we consider it one point? I will try this out.

  3. Thank you for proposing this. I know the ballpoint game very well and have used it many times. However, I am not yet sure how this version is supposed to be played. In particular, how should participants “pass” the object? Simply by briefly showing it in their video image and after that the next person shows it? What would be consider a mistake (in the original versino: dropping the ball)? If two persons show he object at the same time?

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