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Using Lessons Learned as a Dungeon Master on Roleplaying and Games in Agile Coaching

by Ben Linders on Oct 02, 2013 |

Guillaume Duquesnay plays Dungeons and Dragons with a pack of friends every one or two month. He is using his experience with games and roleplaying in his daily work as an agile coach. At Agile Tour Brussels 2013 conference he shared his learnings regarding leadership, facilitation and management styles where no authority was involved.

InfoQ did an interview with Guillaume about how game mastery and roleplaying helped him to develop his coaching, facilitation and leadership skills. And asked him if playing games can give happiness and fun to people, and make them more productive?

InfoQ: In your sour session at Agile Tour Brussels you talked about roleplaying in agile. Why would you do that?

Guillaume: First, some agile practitioner talked to me after reading articles about my roleplaying experience on my blog (a personal blog, with various and unrelated subjects). They made me aware of a strong connection with facilitation and agile management, so I thought "one day I should give a talk about it". I used to do more offbeat talks a few years ago and I missed it.

My purpose for the session at Agile Tour Brussels is to inspire managers to consider something different then the authoritative style that is often used, by sharing a story that is not related to IT nor corporate management. 

On another level, by talking about my roleplaying games, I have the secret hope of improving how to do them (talking with others, clarifying my thoughts), then help other roleplayers to enjoy their gaming a lot more.

But there is a more basic, practical message: use games! 

Roleplaying had me realize that people remember everything they played. Think about the difference between playing an XP Game and attending a talk about agile. So if you have to teach something, or learn something, or engage a team, try to go through games, not blahblah-ing. 

Many agile games are referenced today on the web. Even if it's not game you're looking for, host workshops with a live experience that will engage their attendees.

InfoQ: You've learned some management, facilitation and leadership lessons from playing "Dungeons and Dragons". Can you elaborate on that?

Guillaume: You mean, in a few words and not a one-hour talk :) ? 

Ok, Let's try. Technically, it's game mastering that taught me lessons, a lot more than roleplaying. But now that I'm aware of the connection with work, playing teaches me how to be a better manager.

It's about an activity, very generous at first - mastering a game for players to enjoy - that I practiced during my student years. Mastering a game was a bit tiring and stressful, and sometimes you have to handle a few bad player behaviors (a minority, but not uncommon among players communities), but hey, that was the game. 

8 or 9 years ago, after a 3 year break, I've started roleplaying again. I was a "grown up", a pro consultant, and had become more aware of team dynamics (which would lead me to agile coaching a few years afterwards). Practicing the game the same way, I felt a bit like the guy who hosts a party where everyone feels pissed off by me trying to control everything. That happened too many times; leading to forgetting to smile, relax and enjoy. 

As a game master, I had to control the rule conformance, watch after cheaters, check the watch, play some background music, and take care of my attention not being misused by a bully player. And the core task of course: tell the story and play the non-player characters. 

Long story made short, seeking for improvements on the whole game process I've deconstructed the relation I had with the players. I went from a "high", controlling style - ineffective - to a delegative, co-responsible style. We are both responsible for the game success, for everyone's fun. I'm just a story teller. 

Freed from that, I can help my players a lot more. You can't go help them with all your skills if you're tightened to your manager "throne", struggling to stay on it.

I realized afterwards that most of that role deconstruction can be applied to the "authoritative" image of the manager.

As a coach eye helped me improve my roleplaying games, then the game learnings helped me in return in hosting my coaching workshops. I think today I am a lot more on the same level with the workshop attendees than above them. It all feels smoother and easier, for them and for me.

InfoQ: Can you tell something about how "managing without authority" and "self steering teams" relate to each other?

Guillaume: I think authority is something that is used when you want people to do what they don't want to, don't understand, don't like, or don't find relevant. At least, you preempt your teammates from deciding; at worst, you have them do something that is not relevant. It can be useful in an instant crisis, but if it's your base management style, you won't gain anything except disengagement and other negative feelings. 

I don't see how a self-steering team can rise under a management based on authority. A manager asked me once why his agile, self-steering team got bored, tired, even angry. In my analysis, it was because the space for improvement was limited at a higher organization level by authoritative management, preventing higher/larger level improvements. There was local co-responsibility management, but that was how far the improvement could go. Beyond that, you had to follow the corporate rules, the orders - no discussion allowed.

InfoQ: People usually play to have fun. I'm hearing more about how "fun" and "happiness" can help teams to deliver more value. Do you agree with that? Can you give some examples?

Guillaume: I'm a bit cautious with the connection between happiness, fun and productivity (i.e. delivering more value).

I started the other way: being connected to a purpose and fulfilling it makes people happy. 

Regarding fun, I don't see it as a performance trigger. Sometimes, hard stuff has to be said before improving. To quote Soïzic, an agile team member, after a hard retrospective : "Good session ! I like when we tackle the hard subjects". Responsibility is not fun, co-responsibility is no more. A safe person to person feedback should not be fun, but straight and caring. So I'm cautious while using the "fun" word. 

Being yourself is a performance trigger, and you're not always in a mood of having fun. 

I may be on a hard line, but I don't use the "happiness" and "fun" argument when selling agile to managers and directors. I use smarter decisions, higher information sharing, transparency, risk management, and time-to-market. Happiness is a side effect, even a signal of how well a team goes, and that is why I love my job (agile coach). But it's not what I seek. 

Fun is an usual bonus for a performing team, but it may be about me: I wouldn't go where people do not have fun at work.  

InfoQ: If people wanted to start with roleplaying in agile coaching, can you give them some advice?

Guillaume: I realize I never used role-playing games in work situation - well not literally. But some advices on starting a game may be applicable to workshops (replace player with attendee, any game with workshop). 

If you are a player: be nice with the guy who hosts. You are as much responsible about what's happening in the game as he is. 

If you are the hoster, here's 3 basic advices I never had  :

1) get your game material synthetic, big picture oriented. A mind map or bullet list will do, but no more than one sheet. Write it yourself so it's your words on it. Then and only then, keep the details at close hand and only use them when there is a need for it.

2) establish an explicit, trusted contract with your players: they are as much responsible for the game as you are. You won't check the rules and watch for cheaters, you count on them to behave correctly. 

3) delegate every detail that you find hard to handle: time, rule checking, turn management, pizza/cola, etc.

The best way to start is to co-host a game with someone experienced, a classic jedi-padawan experience... I don't know why we never did that in roleplaying games. 

In Paris we have an Agile Playground community, there may be similar initiative near you where you can find people to train with. 

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Used roleplaying at guildmeeting to raise awareness for Schneider Model by Tim Schraepen

I was in charge of organizing our last DevCoaches guildmeeting.
I had been thinking about having people roleplay a meeting with a client who wants to adopt agile.
And it was/is also a worry that I have when we're at a client who doesn't necessarily wants to adopt agile, but sees us working agile. So we don't push them away with being too evangelical and what not.
So I wrote 2 main scenario's (2 different positions in the Schneider model basically), and set up contexts for 2 conversations.
I then had my attendees form groups, with in each one of them 1 'Dungeon Master' that would take on the role as client, and would score the team based on the instructions on the papers I gave them.
It went pretty well. It's great to read someone else navigating this domain as well, and especially getting insight you get from games and using it in their professional life as well.

Thanks for sharing your experience by Ben Linders

Thanks Tim for sharing your experience with roleplaying in Agile coaching!

My expectation is that many more are doing this. I would love to hear from them, read how they do it and the benefits that they are getting out of it?

@BenLinders

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