The Name Game: A Multitasking Game for Agile Teams

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As our series on Agile games continues, we’d like to introduce a quick but effective exercise to illustrate the perils and pitfalls of multitasking. I call it The Name Game, and it works particularly well as an introductory exercise to get people thinking. There are a few key variations that I’ve encountered, but I’ll share my favorite, which was shared with me by Peter Stevens.

Multitasking on Agile Teams
•   Sheets of paper or cardboard name cards, one per person
•   Sharpies, at least one per 5-8 person table

The Objective
Create a name card (first names only) for each participant.

Round One (“The Shout”) Instructions
•   Choose a Worker at each table; everyone else will be a Customer. '
•   Note the Goal: the Customer whose name is written first “wins” (prize optional).
•   Customers will each time how long it takes the Worker to write down their names.
•   Begin the exercise: All Customers begin shouting their names at the Worker, who starts writing them down, one per card.
•   The exercise ends when all names have been recorded. Note the best and worst times.

Round One Debrief
•   Note the chaos that likely ensued. This closely parallels the way prioritization works at many companies (e.g. the squeakiest wheel gets the grease).
•   Ask a Worker how they felt. They probably were stressed, distracted and frustrated.
•   Write the best and worst completion times somewhere visible. We’ll compare these results to those in succeeding rounds.

Round Two (“Everyone’s Happy?”) Instructions
•   The Worker, Customers and Goal remain the same.
•   The Worker will write each person’s name one letter at a time in a round robin fashion. Example: If Anna, Bill and Joey are on the team, the Worker would write “A” on one sheet of paper, then “B” on another, and “J” on the last. Then they would revisit those sheets to write “n,” “I” and “o” (the second letters in each name), continuing until all names are complete.
•   Customers will again time how long it takes the Worker to write their names.

Round Two Debrief
•   Note how things were now orderly, but very inefficient, and ask why. Several forms of waste are occurring here, but most notably context and task switching. There is also motion waste (moving from one card to the next), transportation waste (moving the cards themselves), and waiting (the time between actual writing), all of which impact throughput of completed work.
•   Ask Customers how they felt. By servicing all customers at once, we serve none of them well. Compare this round’s times to the last.
•   Ask Workers how they felt. This round was likely frustrating in a different way; while the process was orderly, a sense of true closure and productivity was likely missing. A great deal of working was happening, but little work was getting done.

Round Three (“Focus”) Instructions
•   The Worker, Customers and Goal remain the same.
•   The Worker chooses the order of Customers to service
•   The Worker writes each Customer’s name in its entirety before moving on to the next.

Round Three Debrief
•   Ask Customers how they felt. How was this time different from the previous rounds? Was the capacity clearer? Did you feel a need to fight for the top spot? Compare the results; they should be at least twice as quick as the previous rounds, and possibly several times.
•   Ask Workers how they felt. This approach is by far the best controlled, least stressful and easiest to manage.
•   Could this work even better? One thing we could do to make this more “agile” is prioritization by value, which could start a conversation about Product Owners, if desired.

In summary, the human brain does not multitask. Focusing on a single job at a time yields better quality, faster delivery, happier customers and less wasted time. This factor becomes vastly more critical when dealing with teams of people and the attendant destructive interference from so many simultaneous possible interactions.

This lesson has substantial implications at all levels from individual task management to project portfolio management and resource allocation systems, and is fundamental to lean-inspired methods such as Kanban. This concludes our third entry on Agile games. Once again, let us know if there’s a particular lesson you’d like your teams to learn, and we’ll see if we know an exercise to demonstrate it.

Until next time, happy exercising!

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