How I learned to stop talking and start playing

Guest Post by Philip Baumann

Two of the most inspiring events I attended in 2015 were the Product Owner Dojo (#PoDojo) in Berlin in March and in November. “Wait a minute!” you are saying. “The same training event twice?” Yes, it was indeed a unique and highly inspiring experience both times for two reasons:

  1. No two Dojos are the same. Every time the team of experienced trainers creates a unique learning adventure, adjusting to the dynamics and needs of the group literally every minute.
  1. The first time I went to the #PoDojo I participated as an attendee, the second time as a support for the trainers. Experiencing the workshop from both sides offered some unique insights. In this post I want to share with you one of them.

Ever had a great #PoDojo and then a rough reality check afterwards?

Have you ever wondered how to bring all those wonderful insights you have at a training into your daily working live? Especially when you, after an exhilarating and uplifting experience, return into an environment where no one has shared these experiences with you? I certainly did. After attending the #PoDojo the first time in March I was pumped. I had so many new experiences and ideas on how to improve things within my organization. Although I certainly implemented some things and improved others with my team, all in all it was hard and tedious and not very successful on a broader scale.

So I kept thinking about ways of how to apply what I learned at the #PoDojo to change things for the better even against doubts and resistance.

Well the short answer to this question is to send everyone you are working with to a #PoDojo. And although I would seriously recommend this, it is not always feasible. Only after attending the #PoDojo a second time another answer started to form in my mind. An answer which has to do with what is at the core of #PoDojo: Creating immersive learning experiences.

Stop talking

Let’s say you want to change a process, introduce a new technique or include more people in your product discovery process. What you usually do is you get people into a room and tell them what you would like to try, why you think it is a good idea and you try to be convincing and to transport the experiences and learnings your had before that led to this initiative. Then there is usually a discussion, some are for it, some against and there are some valid doubts. Eventually you will end up either abandoning the idea, actually trying it or doing something else altogether. This is how it usually goes.

At the #PoDojo while talking to and observing the trainers I realized that they were not trying to somehow transfer the vast amount of knowledge and experience each of them has through talking, presentations or demonstrations. Instead, they were creating an environment and a setting for people to generate insights and learnings for themselves by using techniques such as role-plays, scenarios and games.

So after a while I realized that there is another approach to introducing change. No amount of talking will create the same level of buy-in and momentum as people experiencing a technique, a problem and it’s resolution for themselves. Don’t start with the talking, start with the experiencing.

The power of paper

For example after my first #PoDojo attendance I was really excited about what I became to call the “power of paper”. I had realized that, if applied right, having things on paper on the wall can be so engaging and quickening for a creative group process and for creating alignment.

When I suggested something along those lines to my team what I got back was mostly “We tried it before, didn’t work.” or “Huge overhead to keep digital and analog in sync.” I was faced with two options then. Letting go of my idea or pushing it through with it. Often times when I choose the later it didn’t feel nice although something good often came out of it in the end. I believe there is a third option which is convincing people by letting them experience the advantages of what you want to propose instead of explaining them. You will end up co-creating change initiatives with your team instead of imposing them.

You are struggling with big batch sizes? Well, you could create a beautiful deck and give a flaming presentation mentioning things like lost learning opportunities, handover friction. Or you could get everyone thinking and talking to each other about the topic by playing the penny game.

Letting go and accepting uncertainties

At Ecosia we were starting to use lean canvases for portfolio management and we wanted to order a big batch of them by effort and impact to show the concept to everyone. The plan was to do this by vote in the big round. There was a lot of doubt if this would be the right thing to do. Fears like people interfering with my area of work were in the room. We settled on doing a “practice round” with just a few canvases to try the system and what ended up happening was that it was so much fun for everyone and this gave such interesting insights into the work of other teams that we did the whole batch this way and the “practice round” became the real thing.

Whenever you are facing doubts and insecurities one of your key questions could be “Is it safe enough to try?”. Framing change ideas as “safe-to-fail” experiments, with success/failure criteria defined collaboratively as a team up front, allows the everyone to participate and learn together.

There was another SCRUM role-play we did where most people were playing roles different from the roles in their actual work. SCRUM Masters were doing QA, Product Owners were Developers and Developers were doing UX. This exercise took about 2 hours and afterwards everyone was talking about the amazing insights they had. “Finally I understand why person A always has this problem with that!”

Playing games

In general there are three important puzzle pieces to creating these kind of immersive learning experiences. First of all you have to create an environment where people feel secure and where they feel it is safe to fail. Depending on the environment you are in this can be daunting at first. Your boss might even think you are wasting your and others people time by “playing games”. The good thing is with each positive experience you create this problem will dissolve more and more. Start small, with a small problem and the right people. When you have been part of a #Podojo before you know you are doing the right thing. So be brave and you will be surprised how well your efforts are perceived.

The second piece is to let go during the session. Often times you will ask yourself as the trainers at the #PoDojo did: “I am 100% sure they are doing the wrong thing right now and they will hit a wall because of that. Should I tell them or let them have their failure experience?” Almost always the answer is to stay back. Having a failure experience in a save-to-fail environment is the best thing that can happen.

Just make sure to bring in then the third piece to the puzzle. Make sure there is a process afterwards that captures the learnings and and that they are shared within the group. This will multiple the positive effects of the session.

Back to you

This is the difference between hearing “We should do it this way because otherwise that will happen!” and having had this exact experience yourself. Which one do you think is more convincing, lasting and powerful?

I am not saying you should do a role-play or an agile game for every message you want to convey or every problem you are tackling. Sometimes it might be enough to have a good discussion or a proper retrospective. But you should always keep it on your radar as a very viable option.

I believe this is why the #PoDojo is so powerful in the first place. If you want to be successful at facilitating change within your organization even against resistance you have to become a trainer yourself, a facilitator of immersive learning experiences. Create safe-to-fail environments where people feel secure and trust each other, encourage them to play and make sure the learnings are shared afterwards. It works, it is efficient and above all, it is a lot of fun!

Here is a nice list of agile games to get you started or start playing at a meetup in Berlin!

If you want to read more go ahead

Feel free to connect with me for further discussions

Philip Baumann on LinkedIn