Minecraft Scrum - 3 Years of Teaching and Learning
“The Minecraft experiments.” This is how I refer to each of the 4 times we are in the game within the course. Minecraft creates an immersive world, so players see each other at work, building structures and learning the controls. It is as if you were there with them in the metaverse, building a world in the future. The use of the game enables conversation around teamwork and individual growth. I chose the game because it is easy to learn in 20 min and the difficulty can be adjusted to address specific problems observed in the office. It recreates the work environment in development organizations where people often face unplanned work, unknown technology, vague requirements and need to collaborate to succeed.
The game can create feelings of excitement or anxiety for the students. This is relatable to joining a new company, a new project, joining another team or onboarding a new technology. Everyone copes with these situations in different ways. In a 2-day Scrum Course using Minecraft for Education, all these feelings are amplified. The vast majority of the students are professionals with many years of experience and most have not played Minecraft.
It’s been heartwarming for me to hear how students would prepare for the class. The older ones (re)connected with their grand children to ask for tips and tricks. Parents would keep their kids around while they would go through a tutorial and colleagues would geek out together beforehand.
While I observed public classes run easily, private courses held a few more surprises. In a public setting, no one knows each other and it’s ok to be new at the game and to be vulnerable at times. In private classes it’s different. The perception of “gaming” during work hours, the VPN limitations, the culture, the egos and internal context of the company can creep in. When the employees think the class challenges are not their problems to solve, they can get distracted. Since a key learning objective of this class is to solve problems as a team, these distractions can become detraction.
That said, private classes offer the greatest opportunity for teams to improve their approach to complex problems. Being out of the office reduces the noise found in the workplace and elevates the outcome for the team itself and for the company.
It has been the most liberating and empowering for employees when the executives took part of the training and shared their experience ahead of time. Encouraging their subordinates to let go, dive in, and focus to solve all challenges thrown at them. Teams who gel at work and offer themselves constant support are doing the best. Teams with mild to medium conflicts are finding it helpful to engage and try different things in a safe environment. Teams with intense conflicts generally find the class too hard due to the number of challenges they need to solve together. In those instances, there is a lot of complaints on the use of the game for teaching Scrum, they would rather have the class taught in the form of a lecture.
In terms of elevated learnings, Minecraft creates a metaphor which can be used by students to gain perspective. This can be help people be an observer of themselves (In Over Our Heads, Robert Keagan). A metaphor is an interpretation, it can be reshaped, reformulated so people can look at it, learn and try something different. During class, I often ask the students to comment on what happened during the “Minecraft experiments”. I follow up with a reflection question to help them relate their observations to the workplace. Creating links between work and Minecraft helps in reshaping how to approach complex problems.
It is important to remind everyone the class is not a class on Minecraft. No one will be evaluated on their gaming performance and no one can “win” at this game. The trainer’s job is to help teams evaluate their own teamwork, collaboration and execution using Scrum.
It may happen for people to focus solely on the game and lose focus of the objective of the class. Then, it is important to re-connect the challenges with work and stay curious.
From time to time, one (or more) student will get competitive and try to compare their work to the rest of the group. This behaviour is observable, for example, managers comparing the output of different teams or team members trying to take on too much work. I love it when it happens in class because this lesson is not explicitly in the curriculum. In Scrum, teamwork is so important which makes competing against your own colleagues does not make sense. It may lead to sub-optimal behaviour that would slow the team and make it less effective. For example, if someone wants to compromise quality to ship faster, then the team will have to fix it later, slowing everyone down and costing more money.
The class is designed to get in the gameplay as soon as possible - without any knowledge of Scrum or the game itself. The way people approach work really shines during this first experiment. You can see how people are coping with unreasonable goals, striking deadlines, in an unknown environment. Some people freeze and wait until the gameplay is over. A few people are exploring the world trying to find treasures and kills zombies. Others are building what they assume is required, all by themselves. Some assign tasks and a handful will plan and do nothing. Most of these behaviours are not promoting creative teamwork. So, I invite people to reflect and share how did they experience their first experiment in Minecraft and to make connection to work. Then, I invite teams to solve the “gameplay challenges” for the next time.
Did you know Minecraft is also used to develop leaders at the Christopher Newport University?!
The first time we get into the game, it is not comfortable for anyone, both new to Scrum or experienced practitioners. To be comfortable, people need their mindset to remain curious and complete one action at a time with a common goal and iterate. Scrum offers a structure for teams to learn while building and expanding the boundaries of their comfort zone. Another lesson that transpires with Minecraft is that Scrum is useful to balance learning and building.
The game gives everyone the ability to contribute, even when it does not work on their computer. People pair through screen sharing. For example, one person may use online documentation to instruct the other how to build certain tools. Using other case studies, I find it “normal” to see students in their inbox and be distracted because they are waiting for something from someone. That’s just how they do things. The other case studies don’t have a metaphor to help gain perspective, it is more subtle to land some of the personal learnings.
The outcomes of using Minecraft as a case study can be surprising. In the following example, students openly voiced having a deficit of attention as their main challenge. I adapted my teaching style for them to capture the lessons. During a gameplay, the Product Owner was absent for a moment and the rest of the group lost focus. They were chasing zombies instead of building their product. Then, one person remembered the vision, the goal, the backlog, the plan, and how important it is to engage with the group. It all came back at once. They started to focus on what was only important to reach their goal; one task at a time, they slowly build their product. This may sound silly, but without structure, a person who is easily distracted can get lost and be less productive. Scrum provides a simple structure for people.
In this other example, the class was populated by the execs, directors, and managers. They wanted to fortify their leadership skills in an Agile environment and take part of the change that was unfolding at work. By the end of the class, they had discussed how their own behaviour was sometimes limiting for their teams. How the structure of the company created walls. And found there was a gap in the perceived number of uncertainty around work. While having a perfect implementation of Scrum was not their goal, they used the class to generate the right conversations for their context and enabled openness and curiosity for their employees.
In all transparency, not every class is an outstanding success. Some classes had trouble to run the game and/or engage with curiosity. Sometimes, learners are being triggered and question if Minecraft is the right medium to host the class. Generally, only a few are being triggered, most are willing to delve in. To help with that matter, I like presenting part of the theory of Scrum before the first gameplay. I also like to emphasize the fact that this is not a class on Minecraft, it rather is an opportunity to practice creative leadership.
In conclusion, I believe Minecraft is a great medium to teach and learn about Scrum. The immersive environment makes it easy for people to shine, observe and learn about themselves and teamwork. It creates memories which will likely help retain the lessons for a longer period. Since we want to use Scrum when there is a considerable number of uncertainties, there is no need to be a skillful gamer because Scrum creates cycles of building while learning. With that said, I doubt that I will go back to the old "build a website" case study to convey the lessons of the course.