Agile Principles Seen Through Paintball

Episode 23

August 03, 2011


The Agile Weekly Crew discuss playing paint ball and how it applies to Agile principles.

Clayton Lengel‑Zigich: Welcome to another episode of the Scrumcast. I’m Clayton Lengel‑Zigich.

Derek Neighbors: I’m Derek Neighbors.

Roy VandeWater: I’m Roy VandeWater.

Jade Meskill: I’m Jade Meskill.

Translating Principles Into The Real World

Clayton: Last week we as a team went and did paintball. Wooh. It was a lot of fun, and one of the things we noticed that a lot of the principles that we use day to day really translated pretty well into paintball. We were all surprised by that, as we talked about it more and more, at the end of the day.

Roy: How nerdy is that! [laughs]

Clayton: Yeah, I know.


Clayton: As we talked about it more after lunch, after we did paintball, we were pretty surprised. One thing that’s kind of funny, to give a mental picture to everybody, is that the opponents for paintball were a bunch of 13 year olds.

Roy: At best. [laughs]

Clayton: Yeah, at best, so think about that.


Derek: With pro gear.

Clayton: That’s true.

Jade: They did play everyday.

Inspecting & Adapting

Clayton: One of the principles that I think we kind of discovered that we did…As we went through the different rounds, the format was basically, we played three games with two matches each or something like that. We did a pretty good job of inspecting and adapting. Who wants to jump in and comment on that one?

Roy: I thought one of the things that’s pretty cool is that it felt natural. We didn’t even realize that we were trying to adopt, inspect, and adapt principles until way after we went home, after the paintball event, right?

Like it just came natural that “All right, we did this, that didn’t work. Let’s try something else.” We were constantly reflecting and spending the time between matches, coming up with what we were going to do better to follow the match.

Derek: I think the thing that stuck out to me the most is we didn’t really talk at all about the other team. When we had success or failure, every time we were looking for improvement, it wasn’t anything about “They’re doing this. We need to do that.”

It was all, “These are the things we need to do and to improve.” I thought that, that was kind of interesting. Our focus wasn’t like, “Oh, they’re killing us at this. So, we need to respond to that.” It was like, “These are the little, itty‑bitty incremental things that we need to do to improve how we’re doing things.”

Jade: Which was interesting because when we first started, this is the first time that almost all of us had ever played paintball. We did end up playing against a bunch of 13‑year‑olds, but they really did have pro gear. They came in every day like this is what they did, but our focus really wasn’t on them at all. We were a little worried we’d get our butts kicked the first time in, but we just didn’t sweat it, man.

I thought that was really cool when you pointed that out afterwards, Derek. We just never even mentioned them. It was all focused on ourselves.

Play To Beat Yourself

Clayton: One of the thoughts that I wrote down was that, ultimately, the first game we probably tried to beat the other team and then after that it was just how can we beat ourselves from the last round. I thought that kind of encaptures that thing.

One of the other things that we’ve started to do after we did the paintball, it was easier to describe in a kind of a paintball you’re talking about being shot at and those things, but was the concept of exposing your vulnerabilities. There was times where you’d say, “When I go over here, there’s a guy that can shoot me from that little window or whatever.”

We talked about that a lot, and we found ways as a team to solve that problem. How does that really relate to the software side of things?

Exposing Your Vulnerablities

Derek: I think a lot of times we go into standup and we really only talk about, “What did you do yesterday, what did you do today, and what are your impediments?” While all of those things are really relevant, I think the things that are usually the largest risk to a team are the things that the team is actually afraid of or exposing themselves to.

I don’t think we really talk about risk during a lot of our different ceremonies inside of Scrum, and I think that that’s something that we need to, as teams, as we become more trustworthy with one another and become more vulnerable with each other that we start to say, “These are the things I’m worried about,” or “Hey, by doing this, we’re leaving ourselves open to that.”

During paintball, one of the things I saw was we were doing something like duck and cover type of maneuvers where, “Hey, you’re going to send somebody out and I’ll cover you.”

The first time we did that, we were fairly successful except at one point when we advanced almost all the way to their base, our guys got nailed. When we came back, the adjustment was, “The problem is when you’re covering me, you’re covering me from the wrong angle and therefore, you’re leaving me exposed. When I get to a certain point, your angle was no longer effective cover for me and so I’m exposed, could you adjust and give me a slightly better angle so that I have more cover.”

I think we don’t do that enough as teams to say, “Hey, if I take this risk, I’m going to be exposed and if you could just shift over and do this thing for me, it would really cover and help me manage the risk that I’m taking to take that risk.” I don’t think we do that.

I think that’s why a lot of teams don’t take risk. The second part during the last game we had I thought we were super aggressive and it had everything to do with trust meaning that, by the sixth game, I knew that if [inaudible 00:05:24] said, “Go ahead and advance, I’ve got your back,” I could pretty much just stand up and run right to the target and stick a gun in their face, and not have to worry about getting hit because I knew he had my back.

When as teams you start to provide adequate cover to each other to take risk, the amount of risk you can take is monumentally huge compared to the cover‑your‑ass perspective of, “I’m not going to take any risk because I can only take care of myself.”

Roy: I think what’s important there too is that when you have somebody covering like that, the risk becomes less of a risk.

Derek: Correct, that’s correct.

Roy: There’s is less chance of this going wrong because I know there’s somebody that’s got my back.

Derek: Absolutely.

Power Of Incremental Improvement

Clayton: So one of the other things I think we did a good job of from game to game we kind of improved on small things, so it’d be kind of do some incremental improvement. We all had our own ideas of what those things were, but I was curious what you guys thought. What are some things you thought we did better incrementally over time?

Roy: So I think one of the things that we started doing was splitting off into [inaudible 00:06:27] of teams. So we’d start off at six and split off into three, and then eventually we decided actually do pairing where we would have each person buddy with another person and kind of work from that perspective because that gave us more flexibility and it was really difficult to keep track of three people [inaudible 00:06:41] . Like we actually split up into smaller chunks, but we realized every man for himself was not practical, or feasible.

Derek: Yeah, I think the other thing that was interesting is I thought we did a fair amount of self organization and self direction within. So after the I think it was the first game or the second game, and we kind of decided to split up into pairs, we kind of did direction where we said, “OK this pair you guys get the right flank, this pair you get the left flank, this pair’s going to hold and cover the base or do whatever.”

But that was as far as the direction went, and then it was really up to each pair to say, “This is how we plan on attacking to the right, or attacking to the left, or holding position.” The rest of the team didn’t even have to know what was going on from that perspective.

It then kind of goes back to the trust issue for me, right. If I say, “OK, Clayton and Jade, you guys have the right side, Roy and I are going to take the left side,” we’re not worried about are you really going to take the right side. Right, you’ll let us know, you’ll scream at us if you lose your position, you’ll let us know that. Until then we just trust that you are doing that, we don’t have to worry about it.

Individuals Blame The Game

Clayton: Kind a good parallel was the team, maybe this was just because they were 13, but the other team I noticed that they were pretty much everyone for themselves, and when something would go wrong it was always like, “Oh man, why didn’t you see that guy, or why…”? It was always someone else’s fault.

But with our team we did a pretty good job of when someone got out it was a…OK now that we’re starting this game over, or the next game, like, “Hey, why did you get out, what’s going on, and what can we do to improve next time?” I thought that was a pretty direct parallel. I think most teams you got a bunch of individuals that are all going their own direction, and it’s kind of a blame game when something goes wrong.

Constant Communication

Derek: Yeah, I think one of the things I noticed too was I think you heard us talk the entire game. Like definitely between the pairs there was definitely a ton of talking, and I don’t think I heard the other team do very much verbal talking at all.

Jade: No, I never heard them, because I think they thought that that was a strategy to keep them safe. Right, was to keep quiet and keep your head down. I think we definitely bucked that and just kept in communication the entire time.

So Clayton, you said that we’ve started to use this idea that we came up with of exposure. Maybe you can explain to the listener how we are incorporating that into our stand‑up, and how it flows in the stand‑up, and what are some of the results that we’ve seen from that already.

Exposure In A Stand-Up As A Means Of Preventative Care

Clayton: Yeah, so we’ve started doing something towards the end of this tenure. If you feel like there’s something that’s happened recently, or if you feel like you’re going to get into a situation, or you’re going to be exposed, where you are going to be facing some extra risk or something like that thereon, communicate that with the team.

Earlier this week we’ve had a situation where someone said, “Hey, I was making good progress and things were going well but my pair they’re sick, and they’re going to be out now. I am going to be exposed because I’ve got some meetings, and I was going to rely on them today, but now that they are out what am I going to do?”

Those are things that normally people would kind of ignore that, and it might come up the next day, but that’s something that we were able to discuss before it even became a real problem.

That’s pretty much the flow has been, if you’ve got something that you feel exposed on, even if it’s not anything directly related to the work that you’re doing that day, but more of a concept of, “Hey, we’re going down this road with this solving a certain problem. It seems like it’s going to be OK, but I’m a little worried.” Even that kind of stuff has been helpful to get out and exposed to the team.

Jade: Do you think that’s helping us to preemptively recognize things that could possibly be impediments, but, instead of ever materializing as impediments, we’re catching them sooner because we’re getting ourselves in that mental mode of thinking defensively?

Clayton: Yeah, I think it’s a good way to put it. I think we’ve treated it like preventative care, almost. Normally, it would have been acceptable or OK or part of the process to say, “Yesterday, I had this impediment that slowed me down,” but now we’re getting ahead of that.

We haven’t solved every single problem so far. There have been times when we have said, “Hey, I’m exposed,” and the team says, “OK. There’s not much we can do,” or whatever the situation is. But it’s at least been out there and been on people’s minds, and we have been able to prevent those things before they become real impediments.

Vulnerability is OKAY

Derek: To me, the biggest benefit is it really puts people in a state where vulnerability is OK, where it’s OK to say, “I’m worried about this technical challenge,” or, “I’m worried that my pair is not going to be fully available and that it’s going to be hard for me to focus or to achieve the volume of work,” or, “I’m worried that XYZ is going home, and that’s going to impact my ability to participate ABC or be distracted.”

For teams, it’s very difficult to be vulnerable. So, by putting within a ceremony an ability that allows people to, in a safe way, express what they’re feeling exposed to can potentially, if not abused, help build trust by encouraging people to be vulnerable in a safe manner.

Clayton: Yeah. I think vulnerability is the key there. When people say “trust,” a lot of times, if you’re not really familiar with what that means on a team, I think a lot of people think that just means, “I trust Roy to do his job.” But vulnerability is really the key aspect of the trust, when people talk about it in relation to a team.

Jade: It’s been interesting to watch, because, a while back, we implemented from core protocols the check‑in and then talk about some of our feelings and emotions to try to get to some of that vulnerability. We still glossed over a lot of things, because we weren’t thinking in that defensive mindset.

It’s, “OK, here’s maybe some raw emotion. I’m mad because blah, blah, blah,” or, “I’m sad because of this,” but it’s really helped us have a frame of reference to think about how am I exposed today and what’s going to happen today that’s going to leave me in a potentially vulnerable state, and sharing that with the team. I don’t know, what you guys think about that.

Short Feedback Cycles

Clayton: One thing I always thought was interesting was we do week‑long sprints, so there’ll be times, towards the end of the week or retrospective, someone will bring up some problem that they had, and then maybe they were trying to be vulnerable. They were talking about something that was a problem.

But then, come next sprint, over the weekend, it was like they forgot about it, and the behavior never really changed. What was interesting with the paintball was that it was so quick. Basically, there were maybe five minutes between the matches.

Sometimes, we took a longer break ever now and then for 10 minutes. But it was so fresh on everyone’s mind that, “Here are the problems. Let’s talk about them,” and then, at the beginning of the next one, everybody knew what we needed to do. We knew all the issues that we had, the vulnerabilities. So it was easy to come back and immediately go into that. That’s been part of the problem with some of the core protocol stuff that we’ve been doing.

I think that we’ve been glossing over that, but it’s easy, especially now that we all have paintball on the mind when we’re talking about the exposure stuff, so it’s easy to think in those contexts of, “OK, I’m going to talk about what I’m vulnerable or how I’m exposed. And I’m not going to gloss over anything, because I know that I’m going to get some impact from the team, or something is going to happen right now. It’s not going to just wait. I hope someone says something later.”

Building Trust And Learning To Be Vulnerable

Jade: As we wrap up here, what would you recommend other teams do who are maybe struggling with building up some of this trust or talking about the vulnerabilities and exposures that they have? What would you recommend for them to do?

Roy: The core protocol portion of the stand-up, and having people start talking about their feelings, is a good place to start. Because the facts are great, and all, but as Jade likes to say, perception is reality. If people are feeling a certain way and perceiving their own realities in a specific way, then it’s good for the rest of the team to know that, so they can understand where that person is coming from.

Derek: I’ll provide a counterpoint to that, and I’ll say I absolutely agree that perceptions can be reality, but I’ll also follow with feelings aren’t facts. I would say that when I’ve seen teams do the best when it comes to vulnerability is when they have a shared vision.

Because of that, basically, it allows all the baggage and all the bullshit to be dropped. When everybody is going a different direction, there’s all sorts of grandstanding and lobbying, and there’s always this undertone of, “I’m trying to convince you to do my direction, and Clayto was trying to [inaudible 00:15:44] somebody else to do their direction.”

There’s all this silly political bullshit underneath the surface, where I think then vulnerability is locked out. When it comes cut and dry is, “Is this pushing forward to our vision? Yes or no?” It becomes a lot of easier to say the hard things and have the harder conversations, because they’re not loaded with all the baggage of the feelings, so to speak.

You can say, “This is how I feel,” get it off the chest, and then have the real conversation instead of play that political back and forth, like, “I’m trying to jockey to determine what direction to take things.” I would say the best thing a team can do is get on the same page with where they’re going and then start to talk about their feelings once they’ve got that set. I think the rest works itself out over time.

Clayton: Yeah, that’s what I was going to say. No. I’m just kidding.


Clayton: I think that talking about vulnerability and being vulnerable with the team mates is pretty difficult. I think the team should start with trying to find ways to get more into healthy conflict and not having the perceived “everything is OK” feeling. Basically, a lot of stuff that’s in…

[phone rings]

Clayton: A lot of the stuff that’s in the…


Clayton: I’m sorry. I’ve got to take a call.


Clayton: To find dysfunctions on a team, and the chapter that talked about, there’s a list of things that teams who don’t have trust, these are the bad habits that they have, and here are ways you could figure out. If your team does have trust, they should exhibit these traits. I think driving into some of those is a good step in that direction.

[background music]

Jade: Thanks for listening to ScrumCast. Hopefully, you’ll catch us next time, as we continue to expose ourselves.

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