Timing – Approximately 30 minutes to run the exercise, including debrief, but you need to set up the ‘boards’ in advance.

Overview

I was trying to find a remote exercise to help with some coaching I was doing for new teams, where all team members are working remotely. I couldn’t find anything that really worked for me so I put this together. It’s a quick exercise for up to 6 participants, to demonstrate the differences between teams that are tightly managed and those that are self-organizing.

Materials

All you’ll need for this is a previously set-up online whiteboard that your team can have access to. I used Miro.com but you could also use Mural etc. The key is that you need to be able to create the boards below in advance of the exercise. It’s also important to use abstract images rather than something familiar so that the team members don’t try to ‘second guess’ what they’re building.

Board for the first pass of the exercise as a managed team. You need to hide the abstract image as shown.
Abstract image used as requirements for the first pass
Board for the second pass as a self-organised team. No need to hide the image for this one.

Instructions – First Pass

  1. Ask for a volunteer to be the teams’ manager for the exercise.
  2. Email the abstract image to the manager. This will be the requirements for the first half of the exercise. Only the manager knows the vision for the end product so you need to tell them not to share the image.
  3. Ask for volunteers to take charge of each of the shapes. Explain that these are the team members’ specific area of responsibility. Put the manager in charge of the ‘stars’. If you have fewer than 6 participants, some may need to take more than one shape.
  4. Enter the team member names above the shapes they are responsible for.
  5. Explain the ‘rules’ to the team: The team has to create an abstract image from the manager’s instructions. Only the owner of each of the shapes can move them or change their colour. Only the manager can see the ‘big picture’. The manager now has to instruct the team members to move, position and change the colour of each of the shapes to build the picture that you’ve emailed them.
  6. Allow 6 minutes for the first pass.
  7. Reveal the picture to the team and see how close they came.
  8. Have a quick debrief discussion. How did this feel to the team members? How did it feel as the manager?

Instructions – Second Pass

  1. Now show the second board to the team.
  2. The instructions this time are that all participants (including the manager) are now in a self-organizing team. Anyone can move and change the colour of any shape. They can also all see the ‘big picture’ requirements. Encourage them to talk and to collaborate.
  3. Allow them 6 minutes again. It’s likely they will recreate the whole picture before the time is up.
  4. Hold a debrief discussion on how this felt for them as team members and the differences between the two passes.

Possible variations. I haven’t tried these but they may be interesting/amusing to increase the pressure a little.

  1. During the first pass, stop the clock at around 3.5 minutes and send the manager an altered abstract picture. The steering committee have changed the requirements.
  2. When you email the image to the manager, include a ‘persona’. Encourage them to be vocal and demanding, telling their staff they don’t have much time left and to hurry up, etc.

Possible Scrum variation. I wanted a very quick exercise for a specific purpose but I think this could be run as 3-4 iterations. Set up a couple of extra ‘boards’ with different pictures. After the first pass give the team a 1 min retrospective and a 1 minute planning opportunity. Let them work out for themselves that the whole team seeing the big picture and self- organizing around it is an effective way to work.

Hope you like this and I’d value any feedback. Please also let me know how you get on if you try the exercise and/or any of the variations.

12 thoughts on “A Fun, Remote Demo of the Benefits of Self-Organization”

  1. I used this today on my retro. and It went very good. The team enjoyed it and the members were able to see the different models. I used a shared word doc and that was a big mistake. It did not syc/load fast enough and they were not able to accomplish well the task. Some people were frustrated about it and some just kept at it. It was a great exercise even with the “environment” issues we had, after all that happens on the real world.

  2. Looks like a great exercise. Just one thought: This seems to be highly depending on having the exact right amount of people participating. Any suggestion to make this more robust against varying numbers of participants (other than preparing X different boards)?

    1. Hi Ronnie,

      I set this up originally for 7 or fewer people (6 builders and a manager). I’ve run it with fewer people, I simply allocated 2 shapes to one or more participants and it worked fine.

      You could increase the number of participants by increasing the scale of the abstract picture and types of shapes but it may become a little unwieldy. Alternatively allocate more than one person to a shape and have them take turns, but I suspect you’ll run the risk of getting into a context switching situation. That could be fun in itself and is something else I’ve been looking at in a similar vein.

      I’ll give it some thought and see if I can come up with anything.

      Best, Mark

  3. I’m testing this out today, with plans to do this with a group next week. Thank you for sharing this!

  4. hey mark, thanks a lot. will try it with y next clients. it looks like you use both miro AND mural? if so, which tool is better for which purpose for you?

    1. Hi there,

      Hope the exercise works for you. Would be great to hear how you get on.

      I’ve used Miro far more extensively than Mural, simply because that’s the one I started working with first. It’s excellent for my needs. I’ve used Mural a little and it seems great too but I honestly haven’t used it nearly as frequently so I’d be doing them a disservice if I make a straight comparison.

      Sorry I can’t be more specific but let me know your thoughts.

      Cheers

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