Agile Game Lab at Zalando Onboarding

As part of the onboarding process of Zalando Technology, we were invited by their in-house Agility Coaching Team to hold an agile game round inspired by the Agile Game Lab. Every new employee of Zalando Technology takes part in a four week period getting trainings, listening to presentations and doing workshops in order to get to know the company. Part of this onboarding process is the agile game round, which helps the new starters to get an impression of how working in an agile team, like a team at Zalando Technology, feels like. Here’s what we’ve learned by using the Marshmallow Challenge game in May.



A Design Challenge For Teams

In the Marshmallow Challenge a team of four has to build a free-standing structure in 18 minutes, using nothing else than 20 sticks of spaghetti, 1 yard of tape, 1 yard of string and a marshmallow which has to be put on the top of that structure. The game was created by Tom Wujec as a design exercise and has become a famous game that creates experiences of collaboration, innovation and creativity. We are using The Marshmallow Challenge in our basic agile trainings to create an experience of how difficult it is to design a solution working within a team and use these experiences later for a debrief based on the agile manifesto. We believe the game is a perfect fit for an agile training since the job an agile team needs to get done is best described as design: finding the best solution within a set of constraints which is so complex that only a team is capable of completing the tasks.

Iterate To Reduce Risk

At our last Agile Game Lab at Zalando that is part of the company’s onboarding process we could observe a team approaching the challenge in a highly agile way learning extremely fast. After two minutes into the game the team had their first prototype built – so they learned right at the beginning about the riskiest assumption about the weight of the marshmallow with respect to load-bearing capacity of the spaghetti. By doing their first prototype they also identified a simple pattern of triangles that they then went on using to grow higher from the bottom by always testing the statics of the structure.

This building and testing loop kept only some team members busy and they used their additional capacity to constantly check the time and progress of the competition. Watching the competition they have been forced finally to go higher than their architectural pattern allowed and we already thought they would lose and not come up with anything. But as only one minute was left they finally tore down one level of spaghetti so that they at least succeed by delivering something by end of the 18 minutes and also managed to add a banner on top of the structure.


A Game To Train Agile Thinking

Lessons learned what this team did exceptionally well and we find highly useful for getting real work done:

  • Prototyping matters: Start immediately with prototyping to find the riskiest assumption fast. Many teams fall into the analysis paralysis or try to build the spaghetti structure in a waterfall way, thus learn about the riskiest assumption only when it is too late.
  • Succeed with facilitation: Only invest part of your efforts into building but also facilitation (check the time constraints) and context (e.g. competition). Many teams are not taking these aspects into account and are fully absorbed by building and waiting since not everyone finds a place to contribute to the building stage.
  • Adaptive planning: Work with options, thus have a plan that can be changed. Teams often just stick to one plan or architecture decision they made in the beginning, which they desperately try to make work.
  • Organize for maximum diversity: In the team­-up we asked the group to come up with maximum diverse teams given a few constraints like agile experience level, gender and native language in a self organized way, so team diversity matters.
  • Have fun at work: Have fun by being creative and fast. Adding the style element gave the team a feeling of success, even though they didn’t win on a pure functional level (which tricked our facilitator to measure the flag and not the marshmallow height and first announcing this team as the winner).
  • And last but not least: We found that company culture matters even more, since we wouldn’t have expected this mature team behaviour to emerge within 18 minutes within a group of people who barely knew each other.

Actually we believe that for these folks we may need to find another, harder challenge for the next time.


The Marshmallow Challenge

Meetup: Agile Game Lab Berlin