Agile Jenga

Posted on Feb 8, 2014 | 0 comments

Agile Jenga

After several years…

Working across a variety of industries trying to adopt Agile development practices, I can confidently say that Agile Jenga is the single most popularly played game among Agile adopters.  If you are part of a large organization that is adopting Agile after years of doing things the traditional way, then you already know the rules.  Here are the rules for those who are unfamiliar with the game…  

Much like the party game Jenga…

We need to start by creating a structure or model of our desired software development process as a set of building blocks.  In order to achieve this first step, most organizations will pick a popular existing structure like “Scrum” or “SAFe.”

These structures are already set up for us so that we do not have to go through the tedious process of learning how to build such a structure, which is typically seen by most large organizations as a waste of time.

Now, as the name of the game suggests, the goal is to create a new structure based on the original that stands much taller and more statuesque to reflect the uniqueness and complexity of our company by moving pieces around.  We carefully remove the building blocks from the foundation of the existing structure and defer them for later adoption by placing them at the top of the “todo” list.

As the game progresses…

It will start to become more and more difficult to continue deferring foundational blocks without everything crashing down around us, so we need to get some structural experts to help keep the structure steady.  We refer to these “experts” as Agile coaches, and they have years of experience helping organizations play Agile Jenga.  However, we need to be careful when choosing an Agile coach, because there are many coaches out there that want to revert all our hard work by taking the pieces off the top and putting them back into the foundation!

We refer to those unproductive coaches as “Agile zealots,” and usually can keep them out of our organization by interviewing coaches to make sure they understand the rules of the game beforehand.

Sometimes, despite our best efforts and expert support…

The structure may become unsteady and people may start to become nervous that everything is going to collapse.  There are many different ways we can address this, and just like any game, trends in the ways to address it have emerged and shifted over time.  Five or more years ago, when Agile was a young concept, the most common way to address the unsteady structure was to knock it over on purpose and play a different game out of frustration.

As organizations matured in their Agile Jenga playing, new trends emerged, like leaving some of the important foundational pieces alone, and deferring other pieces that were less load-bearing in the structure.  Good Agile coaches could help us to better understand which pieces were more load-bearing, and which ones could easily be deferred, which allowed us to get much taller and more complex structures without full collapse.  We hired good coaches earlier so that we didn’t make weak structures prematurely.  However, even with this more advanced technique, we still eventually discovered that the structures would become unstable.

Let’s skip forward to the trends of today’s savvy Agile Jenga players.

We now have access to many case studies from large companies that have built monumental and impressive structures that have, to date, entirely avoided collapse.

We look at these in awe of the marvel of engineering that created them and hope that one day our organization can also have such a monument.

We also still see many new players getting into the game and knocking over their structures, but there are far fewer of those than there used to be.  The majority of players are now somewhere in the middle of these extremes, building impressive structures with expert advice, but never quite achieving the impressive complexity of some, nor the stability of others.

So, what does the future hold for Agile Jenga as a game?

Some experts may claim that there are newer games out there like Lean Jenga (instead of building upwards, the goal is to defer horizontally to create a leaning structure while avoiding collapse) that will eventually become more popular, but I would personally like to see a completely radical new concept start to take hold.  Why not have a game where the goal is to use the building blocks to create the most reliable and stable structure possible, and throw greater and greater challenges at the structure, fixing instabilities along the way?  I suppose you could argue that this kind of anti-Jenga proposal makes me some kind of insidious zealot, but I think this is probably the game that the signatories of the Agile manifesto (who pretty much sparked the Agile Jenga revolution) originally intended.

Of course, this is just my opinion.

Feel free to share your Agile Jenga tips and tricks in the comments below!  HUGE THANKS to Jared Richardson at Agile Artisans for kindly suggesting the Jenga metaphor that I used in this post during a conversation about Agile industry trends.

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