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Assigning chores to teams using Lego

by on April 26, 2012

Every team or corporation has a bunch of unpleasant routine duties to handle. Yours too, I guess. Whether you need to clean up your test server regularly, flush un-owned weird stuff out of office cupboards, maintain internal tools, or just bring out the trash from all the trashcans in the office. There are several strategies:

  1. You could hope someone brings out the trash in service of the public good,
  2. or you could hire someone to do it,
  3. outsource the service to bring out the trash,
  4. or  you could have all teams adopt a number of trashcans to empty.

We tried 1. for a while but you will not be surprised to hear that the results were not satisfactory. The Scrum teams are focused on their stories and not on routine duties that could in theory be handled by others. This is known as the Tragedy of the Commons. 2 and 3 we resisted, not only because it was primarily our wallet that resisted, but rather because we do not want specialists for relatively minor tasks. So we decided to make each team responsible for some part of the routine chores. This was made tricky by the fact that some duties required more effort than others and resisted splitting into smaller chunks.

What would you expect? Probably that each team wants the smallest part in the chores, arguing about their special situation and other duties and how all this brings them to not being able to participate in the common tasks. I expected lots of conflict. So I looked for a way to focus the situation on  the team sizes, and on the duties at hand, to prevent the discussion from being sidetracked. Also I wanted a way of agreement that is transparent, holds for a while, and is not questioned five minutes after the decision.

I set up a meeting with a representative (a team member, not product owner, Scrum master or manager) from each of the five affected Scrum teams. When they entered the room, they found a table with five groups of Lego characters, showing the headcounts of each team. Also, a number of catapults, penguins and cartwheels waited in the center, representing the amount of work expected from each duty. Everybody started toying with the minifigures and chatting, immediately starting off in a relaxed atmosphere.

The five then talked about the team minifigures and about the duties, wanting to understand their relative sizes. The visualization kept them on track. After some discussion they quickly settled on a way to decide: They grouped the duties into five groups of about the same size, helped along by the Lego visualizations of the duties; and then they drew lots, which they want to repeat every six weeks (equal to “every three sprints” in our shop).


The image shows the state after lots were drawn. The knights and wizard on the left have a very big cart, R2 and friends in the rear have a catapult and a penguin, and so on. The attendees were quite happy with the procedure (helped along by the fact that I had written the numbers 1 to 5 on the back of chocolate bars so that they could eat the straws they pulled). We were done in less than 30 minutes.

My learnings:

  • You talk about what you see.
  • Unpleasant decisions are helped along by with toys and chocolate.
  • When you draw lots, the tokens must be edible.

From → Agile, Dev

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