Three reasons why you should play at work

Since Agile was conceived, the Agile community has adopted the idea of using games to help teach and develop teams. While attending an induction evening for parents at my Son’s first school this week, the teachers discussed how the learning was mainly through play, and that reminded me of the power that games can have and why they work and should be supported in the workplace.

Trying new things
Like young children, teams must often be encouraged to try new things. This could be because they’ve worked the same way for 15 years. Or, a new way of working is being adopted in the organisation, or just trying to improve existing working methods. Trying new things is challenging, as most people have a mental block about wanting to do things right; let’s be honest, when you are new to something, and I know from personal experience, being perfect at it initially rarely happens. It is essential, therefore, to ensure a safe environment to try and fail without the risk of “being told off”, as the teacher said.

In Agile, we actively encourage teams to try new things, usually, things they have thought would improve. We try to build an organisation around them that won’t come down on them hard if, after trying something for an iteration, they have to throw some of it away because the idea wasn’t the best.

Please don’t consider it a failure; consider it a new piece of feedback to allow you to improve next time. Open your mind to new possibilities.

Working as a team
While school children need to learn to share and cooperate, for work teams to flourish truly, they need to be taken on a journey from a corporate “team”, i.e. ten people sat in a room working on the same project, to a team in the true sense of the word.

Part of this is being relaxed about “not always getting their own way” and not having a tantrum when they don’t. Often people have been conditioned not to collaborate and put barriers between them and other siloed parts of the business through process documentation.

Games allow the team to work out ways for letting ideas build collaboratively. The detachment from reality allows better ways of interacting with each other when there isn’t so much to lose.

Using creative thinking and intuition
Like many industries, software is no exception to building an army of workers who use reasoned thinking for almost all of their work. However, current research shows that reasoned thinking can be far from the best Return On Investment compared to making quick decisions using intuition or creative thinking.

That aside, being able to train ourselves to use creative thinking and intuition, your reasoned thinking can be better. This could be using the Lateral Thinking method during brainstorming or coming up with ideas on apparent random things to validate or identify risks.

These different ways of thinking are promoted by not being told what to do, being given an open brief and then working out ways to achieve the goal. Games can provide this safe, simplified version of the world with scope for people to explore something.

I struggle somewhat with calling the work agile teams do Software Engineering. Engineering, to me, gives images of stayed, controlled, predictable work. I believe that while there are true elements, and in the sense of designing and building something, it is. I believe there is a great deal of creativity needed to make it special and produce genuinely excellent work.

Doing exercises and games to push your levels of creative thinking and use of intuition allows you to take this back to your desk and apply it to the day-to-day work.

In summary
At what stage did we stop learning from playing? What makes us believe that only children can learn from play? When you have seen first hand, as I have, how simple games, like the Ball Point Challenge, used during Scrum introduction training allow sceptics to see the benefits so quickly and form ideas that last, you are strongly motivated to get more use of games.

I agree it can be hard when people think it’s only for kids or you’re all a bit “East Coast American” or the “fluffy stuff” doesn’t make any difference. Like my Son’s new school teacher, coaches must encourage the team to play, learn, and realise their potential.

It’s not who you are that holds you back, it’s who you think you’re not