Kanjis at Agile Games France

The 2018 edition of Agile Games France just ended a few days ago. What is extraordinary about this unconference? The non-organization principle is pushed to the extreme, and reminded from the start to the participants: “If you want something to happen, do it” as it’s originator, Alexandre Boutin, repeats each year during the less than 2 minutes introduction.

The events gather less than 100 people in a new town each year since 2012. This maximum number of people was agreed upon by the participants themselves during the retrospective of one of the first events.

A lot of people wants to attend, and the less than 100-euros tickets sell in a few minutes. The participants are a mix of people who are coming for the first time, and people that are returning each year. Alexandre is making that visible during his introduction by gathering people around the number representing their number of participation. The visible representation is helping people that are coming for the first time to see that they are not alone in that situation, and also encourages people that are returning to support the newcomers.

How does it work?

A hotel fully booked by the participant is the best configuration we found so far. One of the locals, who chose the place, presents the available spaces for gathering subgroups. Then people who want to facilitate a game put the proposal on a sheet of paper on the wall with a few information about it, duration, number of players, and the learning outcomes.

People who want to play a game, write their first names on the papers to signal the facilitator that they are interested. And after some time, one of the facilitators takes one paper from the wall and signal to the crowd: “we will play that game in that space, we are looking for 6 to 12 people maximum”. The facilitator is followed by the ones who want to participate. And the process will repeat itself for two days.

As all the games have different duration, from short 5 to 10 minutes games, to 2-hours simulations, it could be dazing to try to create a formal agenda. So, no grid and no timing, always on time and never late. When people are available, they are coming back to the main room. In front of the wall, participants are sharing their review of the game. People are sometimes asking one facilitator to play a game again to give them another opportunity to play. People are switching from being a facilitator to being a player during the day.

For the first edition, in Nantes, in 2012, I proposed the Beer Distribution Game created at the MIT Sloane School of Management in the 1960s. The simulation game illustrates the bullwhip effect that could happen in a supply chain, when people have a limited understanding of the whole system, and limited communication. A really fun eye-opener that the participants enjoyed at that time, voting for that game as the best experience they had during the event.

Creating a safe space to play a game is helping people to experience a new approach freely. During the debriefing, they will connect the dots with their environment. And, at that moment, they will know that they need to change, and they will know that they can do it. They experienced the different kind of behavior people could show during a transformation, on a short time frame.

For the 2018 edition, I brought with me a new barely tested game: Kanjis.

The game is an icebreaker to warm-up the team for a long meeting.

A group of more than eight people is asked to watch a set of cards figuring Kanjis for 1 minute. The facilitator splits the group in half.

The first group is sent outside of the room for roughly 5 minutes, and the members are asked to introduce themselves.

The second group stays in the room and is asked to quickly introduce themselves in 3 tags while the facilitator is preparing the next step of the game. The second group is presented with a new set of cards, and ask to tell, as a group, which are the ones that are coming from the previous set. The facilitator marks the selected cards on the back, and prepares the set of cards for the first group.

When the first group is coming back in the room, the facilitator invites them to tell which are the cards they like.

What is happening?

The first group usually found very difficult to identify the cards that were part of the first selection. They could found some of them in their small pick, habitually because one of the participants made an association with something meaningful.

The second group, when asked the cards they like, is identifying the cards that were part of the previous set. They often pick all of them, and when they don’t, their wrong picks are similar to the one they should have picked.

When we are asked the first rationale question, we use only the logical part of our brain, and tend to activate limiting beliefs. People will say things like: I don’t have a good memory, the cards don’t make any sense. Also, the group is asked to answer “as a group” which will activate fears of being wrong and being judged by the others. The peer pressure will shut down some of them that will prefer to remain silent instead of making proposals.

When we are asked the second emotional question, we have access this time to all our brain. Of course, during the first phase, our brain recorded all the cards, and when asked which one we like, the brain is simply matching with what is already known. We tend to like what we know.

The words that we will choose as the facilitator or as participants will have a strong impact on the ability of the participants to engage fully and to access all their resources.

I had the idea of the game while listening to John Cleese speaking during a Talk at Google:

There was a very interesting experiment. A psychologist showed a group of people some Chinese ideograms characters. They came back next week, and they said to the people: “now we’re going to show you some more, some of the ones you saw last week, some new, will you tell us which ones you saw last week.” They were absolutely hopeless. Nobody could do it at all. It was exactly chance. Then they repeated the experiment the second time, they said on the second showing: “we’re going to show you some more ideograms, will you tell us which ones you like.” And the ones they liked were the ones they’d seen the week before. So, the information was in there in the unconscious, but it couldn’t be accessed in a straightforward way.

John Cleese, during a talk at Google in 2015

The initial version of the game is published today after several runs and improvements during Agile Games France 2018. I would like to thank all the participants for their immensely valuable feedback.

The game is published under a creative commons license, and the contributors will be credited in the revision log.