About two years ago, I met a marketing professional at an Agile conference and we had a lengthy conversation about creativity and ways to encourage innovation. After sharing with him the Cognitive Network Model taught to me by Dr. Robert Briggs, he responded that his firm was using “a drinking game“–sans drinking–before every major client presentation. In his opinion, the mechanisms of the game seemed to align perfectly with Dr. Briggs’ theory: as images are called forth in working memory, particularly in new combinations, people generate thoughts they didn’t have prior – leading to new ideas.
A drinking game for creativity? I had to know more! As he explained the game, I realized this short, twenty-minute activity had all the elements of a good Agile activity: fun, collaboration, and useful lessons.
My new marketing friend called the game, “Fax Machine”, and since learning about it, I’ve seen articles written by Inc authors, discovered the game is commercialized as “Telestrations“, and even had a team member laugh how he used to play something similar in high school. I’ve come to call the game, “Telephone Pictionary”, and discovered it has incredible utility in creating conversations about the way we work together. It doesn’t just apply to Agile teams, either – I’ve run this game with executives and senior managers.
Most recently, I convened a session at Agile Open San Diego 2016 and generated the storyboards in this article’s picture. After we hung them up near the marketplace, it was amazing to hear how much commentary and inquiry occurred from those who didn’t attend the session.
Here’s how I administer the game, with a number of variations possible:
- A gathering of people sit around a table (or tables, depending on number of people). In my experience, the message (and fun) of the game is diminished with less than four people. Nine is the perfect number, but there’s no reason you couldn’t play with many more (my largest group had 23 people)!
- All participants receive a black sharpy and “game deck” with nine pages. How you provide this can vary – here are methods I’ve used:
Nine index cards in a stack.
A long sheet of paper folded into nine connected pages (think: like an accordion).
A spiral-bound book.
I’ve found it helpful to have participants number each page 1 through 9 in the upper right corner (be sure to place small numbers…)
- The group agrees on a word, any word. Nouns, verbs, adjectives, all are welcome. Words with multiple meanings are especially fun (e.g., “mouse”).
Ideas for selecting a word:
If you’re a team coach, select a word that you think is relevant to the team’s growth, e.g., “flow”, “trust”, etc.
You could also have people draw words from a hat, ensuring everyone starts with a different word.
Have team members suggest words and use a “fist of five” vote to agree.
- To begin, participants have 60 seconds to write a sentence using the word. Once time has expired, everyone passes their deck to the left.
- Participants now have a new deck with a sentence they didn’t write. Turning to “page 2” (in whatever way that makes sense for your game deck used) and hiding the original sentence, players now have two minutes (120 seconds) to draw a picture that “clearly illustrates” the sentence.
- At the end of two minutes, and with only the picture exposed, players pass the deck to the left again. Now, participants have 60 seconds to write a sentence on “page 3” that explains the picture.
Note: The original sentence should be hidden! Players can see only what was written/drawn prior!
- Play continues, alternating pictures (120 seconds) and sentences (60 seconds), until participants complete the final sentence on “page 9”.
- To conclude the game, unfold your storyboards (or assemble them from your index cards, etc.) and enjoy the laughter.
Of course, you could end the game here if you simply want a good laugh. It’s hilarious to see how ridiculously distorted the original sentence can become. And with only two minutes to draw, some of the artistry can be a riot.
But as a learning tool, this game has the potential to generate a wealth of conversation into the ways that we work together.
Perhaps the most obvious lesson lies within the number of “hops” we take from start to finish when communicating. It’s not uncommon for people to reflect on past activity of “requirements gathering” and risks of a phase-gate approach to requirements. Further, I’ve facilitated this game for executives who bemoaned how their “message is certainly being distorted.” From an Agile perspective, the value of “individuals and interactions” and “customer collaboration” seem especially key.
What else might you discover about communication using this game?
I’ve observed teams discuss the possibility of multiple learning methods after reflecting on the game. I recall one team member share how she found it easy and natural to generate sentences from the pictures, but struggled to draw pictures from words. This could be an insight into the power of “working software” and the need to amply feedback loops in our work systems.
What about learning, and the various methods of learning, might become easier to see with this game?
In retrospecting on the game, a team member once described how he noticed his “partner”, the poor soul on the left of him, struggle with his drawings. He explained how he felt pressure to become a better artist and give his partner easier pictures to work with. I’ve also observed a participant become frustrated and angry with her group because “everyone laughing and talking was too distracting.”
Nothing about safety and working relationships should be taken for granted. What insights into team culture might you generate with this game?