Let the Games Begin

By | Culture, Life at Daxko, Technology, Workplace | One Comment

Here at Daxko, we eat, sleep, and breathe member engagement. I mean, we literally wrote the book on it. So it’s no surprise that team member engagement is important to us as well. Studies show that employees who are highly engaged at work are much more productive.  In a meta-analysis of 263 research studies across 192 companies, employers with the most engaged employees were 22% more profitable than those with the least engaged employees.

One of my favorite ways that we promote team member engagement is through something called gamification. Gamification is the use of game thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts to engage users in solving problems. Studies have shown that it stimulates creativity and directly improves engagement and learning. Here are three examples of how we use Gamification at Daxko to improve engagement, focus, and learning.

1. Teaching agile concepts and principles

As an Agile Coach for Daxko, I’m responsible for teaching new team members about our agile principles and philosophy. This is the core foundation of our engineering culture and fundamentally drives how we build and deliver software.

Some of the agile principles we teach team members include: breaking larger tasks down into smaller, more manageable ones, getting feedback early and often, and working in short iterations. I recently developed a game to help reinforce those ideas and principles using Lego bricks.

The game has two parts – the first requires participants to build a small house based on a list of requirements. Once the house is complete, they use test cards and roll a die to test different parts of the home and make changes based on the results. The second phase breaks the construction and testing down into smaller parts so that they test each section of the house as it is completed. The resulting improvements in efficiency and reduction of waste is obvious and the concepts we talked about earlier become much more tangible and concrete. Plus team members get to have a little fun using their imagination and playing with Lego!

Let the games begin1

2. Reflecting on how we are working

All of our software teams practice sprint retrospectives after each iteration. Retrospectives are a tool for us to look back at the last couple of weeks of working and review how things went. We talk about things that are working, things that could be better, and ideas that we have to make us work better as a team. Since we do this every two weeks, it can sometimes feel stale and boring. One of the ways we combat this is to change up the format and introduce different gamification techniques. One of my favorites is called the Sailboat or Speedboat exercise. Here’s how it works:

Draw a picture of a cloud with wind, a sailboat with an anchor, and an iceberg similar to the one seen below.

Let the games begin2The imagery here represents the following:

Winds = The things that propel us.

Anchor = The things that are holding us back or making us slower.

Iceberg = Things to look out for.

Have the team take time to think about each of these aspects of the project or sprint and write them down on post-it notes. Take turns placing the notes in the appropriate area of the image and discuss each one with the group.

Use dot voting to identify the things the team thinks are most important to address. We capture any action items that come out of the discussion and post them in a visible area in our team room.

3. Measuring the health of our teams

We identify closely with the engineering culture at Spotify. A few of us were fortunate enough to hear two of their agile coaches speak at Agile 2014. One of the things we have stolen borrowed from them is the squad health check concept. This workshop involves the team rating themselves on several “health indicators” using red, yellow, and green cards. The cards help facilitate a group discussion around each of the health indicators. The discussion is the most valuable part of this workshop. (That’s also why surveys don’t work well for this sort of thing.)

Much like retrospectives, this is a really useful tool for the team to help identify how they are doing. The difference is that the team is measuring themselves on specific dimensions such as: teamwork, quality, fun, value, etc. This means that they can identify trends and respond accordingly.

Let the games begin3.jpg


These are just a few examples of how we employ gamification techniques to improve team member engagement and outcomes. Here are a few resources if you’d like to learn more:

GameStorming – a toolkit for innovators, rule breakers, and changemakers.

A Guide For Retrospectives – Tips on how to organize and facilitate effective retrospectives

TastyCupcakes – Fuel for Invention and Learning

Innovation Games – Library of innovation games


Jason B. is a software testing professional that loves a good challenge! When he’s not working to make the world a more “agile” place, he’s probably out running waterfalls in his kayak.

10 Ways Agile Can Improve Your (non-software) Team

By | Culture | No Comments

“Agile” has been a buzzword in the software industry for quite some time now. Recent studies show that almost half of all software projects are utilizing some form of agile methodology. More recently though, agile has been showing up again and again in mainstream publications touting success in various non-software project settings. The Wall Street Journal recently posted on how modern families are using agile to improve communication within the family. NPR has written about how they are using agile to reduce the costs of their programming by up to 66%. Here’s a recent TED talk about again, using agile in the family. The Director of Marketing for REI recently published a video talking about how they use agile for marketing at REI. Finally, there was a recent article on Forbes about how agile is the “best kept management secret on the planet”. These are only a few of the many examples that I have seen. Clearly, a lot of people outside of software are seeing value in the ideas and principles behind agile.

I recently had the pleasure of delivering an hour long presentation on Agile as part of our lunch time Team Member Development (TMD) series at Daxko. During my talk, I presented the following 10 ways that agile can improve any team.

1.  Break things down

What’s the saying, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time…” Like many aspects of agile, this one seems like a no-brainer. Break large tasks up into smaller, more manageable ones. Prioritize them, and work on the most important ones first. Deliver the smallest, most valuable thing as soon as possible. Get feedback on it and adjust your plans as needed.

2.  Focus on outcomes instead of output

I feel so strongly about this one that I wrote an entire separate blog post on it. The idea is that we intuitively think about our work in terms of output. How many cases did we close? How many features did we release? How many emails, phone calls, etc. did we make? We think about our work in terms of output because it is easy to measure, but it’s not what really matters. What matters is the impact or outcome of our work. We should focus on minimizing our output while maximizing the outcomes. Which things can we do to have the biggest impact in our customer’s lives?

3.  Make your work visible and transparent

Consider using a physical task board to make your team’s work more visible. Almost everyone has a tough time with this at first. Create columns for things to do, work in progress, and completed tasks. This can do wonders for your team’s communication and collaboration on projects. It is simple but there is something inherently satisfying about moving a task across the board. Try it out!

4.  Track your progress

Set goals for your team and measure the progress towards them. The simpler, the better but make sure that it is highly visible. Post it in a public team space where people will see it often.

5.  Embrace change

Eisenhower said “Plans are worthless, but planning is essential” and I think he was on to something. Planning is great, but don’t get so tied to your plans that you aren’t willing to change them when you have more information or circumstances change. Be very cautious about making detailed long term plans that are costly to change. If you do this, you’ll be much more willing to steer the ship around the iceberg that just emerged instead of trying to knock it out of the way.

6.  Daily standup meetings

Have a quick, daily meeting that allows each team member to share what they accomplished since the last meeting, what they are planning to accomplish next, and any obstacles that are preventing them from making progress. Make sure everyone is standing during the meeting to help keep the meeting short and sweet. Mornings are a good time for these since they can help the team get in sync early.

7.  Eliminate waste

One of the agile principles is around the idea of simplicity. Maximizing the amount of work not done, is essential. Are you and your team empowered to question the value of your work? Be willing to ask if and why something is valuable. If it is no longer valuable, be willing to see what happens if you stop doing it. Look for things that are wasteful and eliminate them. This will free you and your team up to focus on the things that drive outcomes. You know – the things that matter!

8.  Self organizing teams produce the best results

Teams should be trusted and empowered to focus on doing whatever is necessary to deliver results. Encourage teams to swarm on tasks that need to be completed even if it puts them out of their comfort zone. Trust the individuals closest to the work being performed to make decisions on how to do the work. “Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.” – George S. Patton

9.  Inspect & adapt

Continuous improvement is one of the most valuable and important principles of agile in my opinion. Encourage your team to constantly look at how they are working and ask, “What can we do to improve?” or “How can we be more effective?”. Agile teams do this in regular meetings called retrospectives. These meetings happen regularly (usually every 2 weeks) and the team is encouraged to talk candidly about their work and how things are going on the team. Positive things are reinforced, negative issues are discussed openly, and ideas for changes are considered and planned.

10.  Have fun!

Remember, there is no “one size fits all” version of these agile ideas and techniques. Feel free to experiment and make adjustments and tweaks to these ideas to fit your specific team’s context and needs. Most importantly, remember to have fun and enjoy what you are doing!

Jason B. is a software testing professional that loves a good challenge. When he’s not running waterfalls in his kayak, he’s working to make the world a more “agile” place.

Teaching Lean Startup Principles With Legos

By | Culture | No Comments

As I’ve mentioned previously, Daxko is starting to adopt Lean Startup principles to help drive innovation and new product ideas. As we started planning for our annual Daxko Kickoff meeting, I thought it would be interesting to do some sort of group activity that reinforced some of the ideas and principles that we want team members to embrace as we move into 2013. Particularly, those around customer development, experimentation and learning. I was inspired by Chad Holdorf (an Agile Coach at John Deere) to try and do something with Legos. He teaches Enterprise Scrum using small teams building a city through multiple iterations using Legos.

I bounced the idea off of Will S and he liked it, so together we set out to design a game that mixed Legos with Lean Startup principles. After several late nights, long lunches, play testing, and multiple trips to the Lego store, we felt like we were on to something and this might just actually work. I thought about the game a lot over the holidays and made a few minor tweaks right before we traveled to Birmingham for Kickoff 2013. Here’s how things went…

We split up our entire software products organization into 10 teams of 6-7 people. We intentionally mixed the teams up so that they represented a good mix across the organization. We also tried to put people together who don’t normally work together on the same team, product, or job function. Next, I introduced the game – Lego Motors!

Congratulations! You’ve been busy pitching a business idea for a new car company and a venture capitol firm has been crazy enough to give you some funding. Now it’s time to get to work!

Each team has a goal to make as much money as they can by building cars that these customers will buy. How they do this is up to the team. There is a time limit of 30 minutes to build and attempt to sell to the customers.

We convinced a few people on the leadership team to act as customers and encouraged them to get creative and use props to help “sell” their character. We met with these customer actors the day before and talked through the game mechanics and the principles we were trying to reinforce. This turned out to be a critical factor in making this exercise a success. Each customer had a script to work from. The script included their prioritized list of needs and the associated value for each. Customers were coached on how to talk about their needs without listing specific features. We wanted the teams to be forced to meet with the customer multiple times in order to learn enough about what they really need and value. The customers were also given a list of achievements to award. We created achievements to help reward behaviors that we wanted to reinforce.

After the game was over, we went around to each team and asked them for what achievements they had unlocked, and which customers they targeted. The results were pretty mixed. Most teams sold at least 2 vehicles and earned at least one achievement.

Next, Will went through the achievements and tied them back to the Lean Startup principles that we were trying to reinforce.

We received a ton of positive feedback after the exercise. A lot of people commented that the hands-on nature of Legos combined with the mechanics of the game itself really helped drive home the concepts we had been talking about all morning around being more innovative and experimental. Everyone we talked to had fun and they got to interact with people that they don’t normally see or talk to on a daily basis. Plus, we now have almost 10,000 Legos to play with at the office.

Here’s a short video of the exercise:
Lean Startup Legos

To learn more about the Lego Motors game, connect with Jason B on twitter.

Jason B. is a software testing professional that loves a good challenge. When he’s not running waterfalls in his kayak, he’s working to make the world a more “agile” place.

Lean Startup 2012 Conference

By | Culture | No Comments

We are starting to embrace the concepts and principles of Lean Startup to help guide our efforts around new product development and innovation at Daxko. At its core, Lean Startup is a set of ideas and principles that help us quickly learn what customers want, and just as importantly, what they don’t. We’ve been using an Agile software development process to drive our software product development for a few years now. Agile is great at helping teams iterate to develop a solution to our customer’s needs. While Agile embraces the fact that we don’t know the solution to a problem when we begin development, Lean Startup embraces the notion that we don’t understand the problem either.

Daxko hosted a live stream of the 2012 Lean Startup conference on December 3rd, 2012. After reading Eric Ries bestseller, The Lean Startup, I was excited to attend this year’s 3rd annual event. The conference was hosted in San Francisco but was live streamed to many cities across the world. Many of my Daxko peers as well as a number of others from around the Birmingham technical and startup community attended the livestream that Daxko hosted. The day-long event included many speakers from across all types of software and hardware companies–and even a few surprising fields such as education and mushroom farming.

“People don’t want a 1/4 inch drill; they want a 1/4 inch hole.”

– Steve Blank

There were a lot of good take aways for me. I loved the diversity of the companies represented and getting so many different perspectives on how Lean Startup principles are helping them innovate. Here are a few of the highlights for me:

  1. Vanity metrics are success theater.

They blind you to a lack of product/market fit, commit you to your original vision without agility, and get you invested in appearance, not reality. If you’re looking through your metrics looking for one that makes you look good, then you’re searching for a vanity metric.

2. Focus on improving one thing at a time. Build, Measure, Learn!

Build an MVP that solves a simple business problem. Talk to your customers and find out if your solution solves a real problem for them. Take what you learn from talking to customers and make the product better. Rinse and repeat!

3. Get out of the building! 

The best insights come from watching your customers use your products.

4. Don’t underestimate the power of paper prototyping.

  • Everyone can draw
  • Sketching is a shorthand for thinking through ideas
  • Use team sketching
  • Aim for lowest responsible fidelity

5. “Vision guides experiments, experiments validate vision” – Andres Glusman

6. Important things to measure:

  • Revenue
  • Retention
  • Sales volume
  • Relevant growth

7. APIs are everything.

Think platform over product. Build internal and external APIs. Build the API and then build a product on top of the API. This makes it easier to build integrated products and solutions. It also makes it easier for others to build on top of your product. This is a win/win situation because it allows others to add to your product’s value proposition.

8. Put the right people on Lean Startup projects!

Who is better at iterating and learning? Who is better at building robust, scalable, solutions? These aren’t the same people. You need people that are great at quickly putting together something that will test your hypothesis and gather feedback but you also need people to build solid, scalable solutions once you have an established product. Put the right people on the right types of projects and watch them thrive.

9. Large organizations can operate as a network of Lean Startups

Scott Cook from Intuit talked about how all large companies “get stuck” and fail to innovate largely because they fail to change how and where decisions are made. Scott explained that he has instilled a culture of experimentation and created a “network of lean startups” that are free to experiment and learn in order to help drive innovation.

 10.   Four roles of the leader of the innovation age:

  • Set the grand challenge
  • Instill the right systems and culture to enable fast experiments
  • Live by the results of experiments
  • Operate using the same rules and discipline

Additional Links:

Lean Startup 2012 conference videos

Lean Startup 2012 conference notes

Lean Startup 2012 speakers

Lean Startup 2012 speaker slides

 Image Credit

Jason B. is a software testing professional that loves a good challenge. When he’s not running waterfalls in his kayak, he’s working to make the world a more “agile” place.