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Using Mad Tea to Engage the Neural Network of Groups

January 29, 2020

Mad Tea

If you are an experienced Scrum practitioner, chances are that you’ve worked with groups of sixteen or more. It could be during the kickoff at the start of a new project, a multi-team Refinement session, or a Sprint Review with every possible stakeholder attending it.

How do you start such a gathering? How do you close the meetup and give everyone the feeling that it was a valuable investment of their time? How do you tap into everyone’s energy without doing another energizer that is fun but has nothing to do with the topic at hand?

Let’s start by sharing a story about a Scrum Team that is preparing for the Sprint Review. Let’s assume that the Scrum Master in this story is you …

“During the previous Sprint Retrospective, the team decided to invite all their stakeholders for the upcoming Sprint Review. The state of the increment was such, that the Developers wanted everyone to experience it, play with the product and offer feedback. So together with the Product Owner, the Developers invited all the relevant users, customers, and other stakeholders they could think of. As the Scrum Master, you anticipated a show-up of about 20–30 people in total…

While doing the last preparations for the Sprint Review, you noticed the excitement of the Developers going through the roof. You’ve also spoken to a couple of stakeholders and noticed they were curious to learn what this Sprint Review was going to be about.

At 9:00, 30 minutes before the start of the session, you asked the Developers to help remove all the chairs from the middle of the room. Embracing this opportunity for distraction, they eagerly helped you out.

At 9:30, the room was packed. Everyone seemed to have shown up. 40 people in total! Not being able to sit on a chair, everyone was shuffling around the room, waiting for something to happen. You noticed the excitement of the Product Owner and Developers. This was going to be an awesome Sprint Review! But how are we going to kick this off?

The only thing you told them during the final team huddle was: “don’t worry, I’ll unleash an outburst of many simultaneous conversations within minutes. The ice will be broken!”

You weren’t nervous at all. Because you knew what was going to happen. This group was about to experience… Mad Tea!” This Liberating Structure that is still in active development truly engages & unleashes everyone!

Interested in learning more about this Liberating Structure? Great! In this article, we’ll explain what Mad Tea is about. We’ll do so by sharing its purpose, describe how to facilitate it, and offer examples of how we’ve used it in working with Scrum.

Example 1

Mad Tea during the PSM II class in Bali

The Purpose of Mad Tea

As described on the website of Liberating Structures, Mad Tea is a “Liberating Structure-in-development” that quickly provokes a deeper set of reflections and insights among group members. While standing in two concentric circles, everyone forms a pair with someone else and completes an open-ended sentence in less than thirty seconds. After one minute, the participants move to the right, form a new pair, and complete the next sentence. This allows the entire group to simultaneously have a conversation, share ideas & insights, and quickly get to know many new persons.

The short intervals and pressure to respond quickly reveals essential qualities — without cerebral left brain “interference”. Mad Tea also helps participants to quickly share what’s on their minds at the start of the session. For example, if you expect the meetup to be emotional and full of tension, include open sentences in Mad Tea that already encourage participants to share these emotions. It creates space in their minds that allows a better start of the gathering.

How to facilitate Mad Tea

  • Ask people to form two concentric circles. Form pairs with the person standing directly across from you;
  • Explain: In very short order, one person completes the sentence provided by the facilitator while the other expresses keen interest and curiosity;
  • (2x30 sec) Invite one person in each pair to complete the sentence. Give a signal after 30 seconds, then invite the other person to do so;
  • After one minute, the outer circle move two persons to the right;
  • Repeat until you’ve asked all questions.

Our Findings

  • With larger groups, having the group form two concentric circles can be challenging. To check if everyone formed a pair, ask them to ‘high five’ each other. This quickly identifies the persons that haven’t formed a pair yet;
  • If you have a co-facilitator, (s)he can join Mad Tea when having an uneven number;
  • After having finished one round, we prefer to have only the outer circle move two persons to the right. In our experience, having the inner circle do the same causes too much confusion. While moving two persons to the right, ‘high five’ the person you’re skipping. This is fun and confirms you’re really skipping one person;
  • We prefer to raise our arm to signal the end of a timebox (30 seconds & 1 minute). By asking the outer circle to follow our example and raise their arm as well, the entire group quickly will have your attention. Using the Tingsha Bells once (at 30 seconds) and twice (after 1 minute) hasn’t worked that well for us. People don’t hear the bells or forget if you dinged it once or twice;
  • Play with the timeboxes. I don’t use a clock but use my gut feeling. Sometimes I extend the timeboxes when it seems to make sense;
  • We prefer introducing the sentences verbally, instead of via a PowerPoint. When using a PowerPoint, everyone starts (and often remains) staring at the screen, instead of focusing the attention to the pairs;
  • Not using a PowerPoint also gives you the advantage to tweak the sentences at the last moment;
  • Mad Tea can get very noisy. So try to make the circles as wide as possible by which the pairs aren’t standing shoulder-to-shoulder.

Example 2

Mad Tea used during the Liberating Structures Immersion Workshop with 50+ participants

Examples of how to use Mad Tea

Any gathering with larger groups can benefit from Mad Tea. We’ve used it at the start or the end of a session, or as an energizer after lunch. Below we share examples of when to use it and included potential open sentences.

At the start of the Sprint Review to get everyone's thinking started:

  • If we do nothing, the worst thing that can happen for us is…
  • A courageous conversation we are not having is…
  • An action or practice helping us move forward is…
  • Something we need to research is…
  • A bold idea I recommend is…
  • A question that is emerging for me is…
  • Something I plan to do is…

Exploring the concept of Sprint Goals by using this flow of prompts:

  • With complex work, having a Sprint Goal is important because…
  • If a Scrum Team doesn’t have a Sprint Goal, what might happen is…
  • A reason the Scrum Team might struggle with defining Sprint Goals is
  • The Product Owner can help define Sprint Goals by…
  • The Scrum Master can help define Sprint Goals by…
  • If you don’t have a Sprint Goal, what happens to the Scrum Events is…
  • My experience with using Sprint Goals is…

Fisher S. Qua created a string for a team working to improve their performance:

  • I hope to get…from today’s session.
  • I know a team is dysfunctional when….
  • I contribute to this dysfunction by….
  • Working on ineffective teams makes me….
  • …often prevents teams from working well together.
  • A team I worked on that overcame these challenges was….
  • A practice or behavior we implemented was….

Inspired by Chris McGoffHenri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless created this Strategy Questions Worksheet:

  • What is the deepest need for my / our work?
  • What is happening around me/us that demands creative adaptation
  • Where am I / are we starting, honestly?
  • Given my / our purpose, what seems possible now?
  • What paradoxical challenges must I/we face down to make progress?
  • How am I / are we acting our way forward toward the future?

Using these sentences will bring more life and passion to strategy making. It quickly provokes a deeper set of reflections and strategic insights among group members. The questions focus attention and produce a shared understanding of strategic options and the next steps.

Mad Love

Daniel Steinhofer designed “Mad Love” as a variation on Mad Tea to help build safety and trust by starting personal conversations using 36 questions that can build intimacy and safety. For the prompts, use a selection of this list of questions, taken from this article in the New York Times.

Examples of questions the research suggests are:

  • Given the choice of anyone in the world, who would you want as a dinner guest?
  • Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
  • For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
  • If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
  • Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
  • If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
  • Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?


In this article, we explained the purpose of Mad Tea, a Liberating Structure that is still in active development. By describing its steps and offering practical examples, we hope to have encouraged you to give it a try. Eager to learn even more examples of open sentences to use with Mad Tea? Check this Google Doc for 250+ suggestions!

Interested in learning many different Liberating Structures in an intense 2-day workshop? Check out our agenda for upcoming Immersion Workshops. If you’re aiming to join, book early — they are exceptionally popular. And join the Dutch User Group to learn more about Liberating Structures.



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