Austin Lego® Simulation
I recently had the privilege of facilitating a 1-Day “Introduction to Scrum” class in Austin, Texas, and for the better part of the afternoon we ran the “Scrum Simulation with Lego® bricks” activity (written by Alexey Krivitsky) posted on TastyCupcakes.org. The Lego® simulation allows class participants to experience the principles, values, and practices of Scrum by building a city using Legos®. The simulation works for up to 20 people, with 4-5 people per team, who work together to plan the layout and build the structures of a city, based on features described by the Product Owner (facilitator). I have done the Lego® simulation several times now, and today it “clicked” for me how to incorporate the “product vision” element into the simulation, and it made such a big difference in creating a true Scrum experience for the class participants.
There are several “pre-simulation” steps that lead to the actual “Sprints” in the Lego® simulation, including team formation, process definition, product backlog creation, and estimation. The total duration of the simulation is 1 hr 50 minutes, and more than half of this time is used for pre-simulation activities, and the remaining 45 minutes are dedicated to sprint planning, sprinting, and sprint review. I relish the opportunity to run the Lego® simulation because I use the attributes of my two favorite towns, my college town and my hometown, as the inspiration for the city the teams will build.
Today I had an “ah-ha!” moment when I limited myself to 2 minutes—I was forced to prioritize all the beloved details of my favorite cities into whatever I could articulate in 2 minutes. The product backlog I used was actually a list of buildings (a “shop”, “hospital”, “school”, “river”) provided in the simulation guide from Tastycupcakes. Strangely enough, the Lego city turned out looking remarkably similar to my hometown, complete with a river running just outside downtown, the mission and historic town center anchoring the middle of town, and the ocean and trails close enough to access on foot, bike, or horseback.
I instructed the teams to write a 1 – 3 sentence paragraph of the city’s “vision” based on the key elements I stated in the beginning of the exercise. The team created a collaborative product vision that captured the essence of the city they would build based on my “needs” as a citizen of this town, and in doing so, each of them gained insight, perspective, and inspiration for what this city would become. Here’s what they wrote for the city charter: “[To build a] Family-friendly sustainable living community that promotes healthy work-life balance.”
Because I care so much about the place where I live, I was able to convey the elements of a city that are most important to me, elements that appeal to me on an emotional level—having a historic heritage, a real downtown that I can walk to, summer concerts in the park, Spanish style architecture, open space, equestrian trails, along with some modern flourishes like live-work spaces, sustainable architecture and planning—and I also mentioned elements I dislike in architectural and urban design, including boxy uni-dimensional structures, interiors that don’t let in natural light, and low ceilings. These “preferences” became the metaphors for acceptance criteria in product backlog items.
One thing that remained constant with the Austin teams as with previous teams, the first sprint was somewhat of a flop in terms of scaling of buildings and structures, squat and square 1-storey buildings, and hastily assembled stand-ins for buildings craving just the smallest amount of detail or flare. The teams were somewhat crestfallen (as they always are) when I sent back all but one or two of their buildings to be re-constructed or “tweaked”. These items were then re-prioritized and fit into the subsequent sprints for review at the end of the next sprint. The feedback that I gave during the “sprint review” period turned out to be critical for the team to create structures that were beyond my expectations, as well as their own. The second sprint yielded significantly better results, with flat structures gaining attractive courtyards, patios, roofing details, and windows to let in natural light.
After the second sprint there was palpable excitement that the team had not only satisfied some of my “acceptance criteria”, but they were also free to be creative and have fun with the structures. By the end of the third sprint, the enthusiasm for the city was audible in the energy of the room and effort to complete the last sprint to my satisfaction. As the timer rang out signaling the end of the final sprint, the class was wearing a collective satisfied smile, and almost everyone had their cameras out taking photos of the final product.
My beloved “town” that began with a dubious first sprint, had been transformed into dynamic, colorful, creative town with a heart, full of restaurants and shops with covered patios, all walkable, and accented with live-work spaces, solar panels, and covered children’s playgrounds. As I rounded the town with my product backlog and markers ticking off each of the tasks complete and listening attentively to the elements as they were proudly described by their creators, I was delighted to see the uncanny resemblance to my actual hometown (which no one in the room had actually ever visited), and to see “Pride and Joy” from the participants (is this just my romantic association with the Stevie Ray Vaughn song being in Austin…maybe?).
Simulation in Retrospect
The takeaway for me from today’s experience is the confirmation that the Product Owner on a project needs to be grounded in the details, and accountable for the outcome, of the product or project, in order to articulate the needs of the customer(s) in a way that the team will be able to understand, and derive inspiration from it. By clearly conveying to the team, the needs the product will meet, the product owner invites the team to articulate the vision in their own way, and participate in bringing the collaborative vision to life with their own creative stamp. The result, in today’s case, was a delighted product owner, and an appreciative, happy, enthusiastic team. That is definitely an experience worth traveling across the country for, and my hope is that some of my learners will be able to take a nugget or two from this experience and replicate it in their real lives.