Sixty Steps in the Right Direction

Michele Sliger uses a simple exercise to exemplify the changes self-organized teams cause in any company, especially with the project manager. In this column, Michele explains how to conduct this exercise and how to review and use the results to improve work relationships and communication. Above all, this exercise should help your whole organization understand how everyone's knowledge of a project's initiatives and goals affects the project's success.

On an agile project, one of the biggest shifts in thinking is in understanding the change that self-organizing teams bring to the process. The role of the project manager changes, and the responsibilities of the team change as well, as team members begin to make more decisions on their own.

This can be illustrated with a simple exercise, which you might want to try at your next staff meeting just for fun. Start with a group of people in a small area. Have people stand up and pair off. One person should take on the role of "the worker," while the other person takes the role of "the boss." You will play timekeeper. The object of the exercise is for the worker to take sixty steps in sixty seconds. Unfortunately, the workers must be told how to do this. They can't take the sixty steps on their own. Instead the boss will direct the worker, using commands such as "stop," "go," "turn left," and "turn right." The worker must, at the boss's direction, take normal steps (no marching in place) and keep count of the steps. There will be obstacles (tables, chairs, other boss/worker teams, the timekeeper) that the bosses will have to verbally steer their workers around.

When setting up this exercise, make sure to do this in a small area so that the obstacles and the jam-up of people prevent this from being an easy task. When I run this exercise, I always enjoy pulling a random chair out into the middle of an otherwise clear walking area, or simply becoming an obstacle myself by standing in the middle of a path. At the end of the sixty seconds, have everyone stop where they are. Ask if anyone completed their steps. More often than not, few—if any—are able to complete the task.

Now try the exercise again, but allow the workers to take sixty steps at their discretion. The bosses, instead of giving their workers commands, should now focus on removing obstacles—like all those chairs that you pulled into the paths of the workers. And to make it a bit more challenging, give the teams only thirty seconds to complete their steps.

What an interesting thing this is to watch! You can literally, in only thirty seconds, see how people figure out the most efficient ways of working together. The bosses start by moving things out of the way, often moving ahead of their workers, to clear a path. The workers start recognizing the line of the path and begin to form a pattern of movement. This often looks like a parade or a single-file march. After a few seconds, the bosses begin to realize that they're in the way of all the workers and start to line up against the wall, so that they're out of the way. The workers at this point are just whizzing around the room, and make their sixty steps in thirty seconds with no trouble at all.

This is a simple yet powerful exercise that illustrates how groups of people can self-organize and how bosses can best serve by removing obstacles and getting out of the way. And by observing how the participants interpret your instructions—the equivalent of the project vision—you can learn about how your team communicates and thinks. For example:

  • In one group, one boss jumped on top of the conference table—quickly followed by all the other bosses—and started shouting directions at the worker, rather than walk alongside of him. While it helped by providing more space for the workers to complete their steps, it was bedlam as the shouting from so many bosses made it difficult to distinguish one set of directions from another.
  • Another group boss, the department director, literally started body-checking the other boss-worker teams during the second part of the exercise! He took the direction to remove obstacles to include his own coworkers.
  • Sometimes I mark boundaries for the exercise by laying down tape on the floor, in order to make a smaller space that provides more of a challenge. During the second part of the exercise where bosses were advised to remove obstacles, two of the bosses started pulling the tape up off the floor!
  • In many cases, the bosses won't recognize that once obstacles are removed they can get out of the way. You'll see them start out in front of their workers removing obstacles, then rushing to catch up with their workers and following them around for the rest of the exercise.
  • All groups seem to have at least one worker who forgets to count her steps—sometimes in both parts of the exercise!

Variations on this exercise can be used to illustrate additional issues in the workplace. The importance of a clear vision and direction becomes evident when you bring in another group of boss-worker teams to whom you've given less instruction or perhaps no instruction at all. When you start the clock and say, "Go," these people will be at a loss and start grabbing those who look like they know what they're doing to ask them what they should be doing. Perhaps you told the second group that the sixty steps should be taken backwards. Now everyone is busy taking steps, some forward and some backward, but there are serious distractions as each begins to wonder what's going on. It becomes obvious that an unclear vision or lack of a shared vision can affect the team's ability to deliver.

You could add another thirty-second round to illustrate how important it is to not change requirements in the middle of an iteration. For this add-on exercise, simply direct the team to try the thirty-second exercise again, but this time they should try for eighty steps. After shouting "Go," immediately grab a couple of bosses and tell them you now want every other step to be a hop, and that they should tell their workers. Then move to walk alongside one of the workers (you're probably about ten or fifteen seconds into the exercise now) and tell her that you like what she's doing, but you really would like to see her do a forward step, then two hops on the right foot, then a sidestep. You'll probably have enough time to hear her say, "What? You made me lose count—wait—how do I count these hops and sidesteps? And do the steps I already took count?" Then the thirty seconds will be over.

It's important to talk about your and the participants' observations during the exercise at the end. Sharing what was experienced and how those experiences can be related to the work environment helps to really solidify and clarify what was learned from the exercise. And it's just plain interesting for everyone to hear what others saw and thought.

If you've been looking for a way to sell the positive outcomes of a self-organizing team to your colleagues, this is a fast and fun way to do it. If you decide to try this, please leave a comment below and let me know how it worked out!

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