Playing Lean facilitator tips

Playing Lean is a business simulation, in the format of a board-game to learn about lean startup principles and practices.

The following facilitator tips are based upon those experiences. Some of the tips are more advanced (meaning these take time to prepare). You might not agree with all recommendations, but hey it’s up to you to try 😉 (as an experiment)

1/ Don’t run sessions with less than 6 people

The minimum number of players is 8, the maximum is 16 and the optimum is 12.

Don’t make a team of only 1 player (there will be no “team” conversation)

Don’t run a game with only 2 teams (there will not be enough action on the market, and people will pre-calculate too soon who will win)

In case of 16 or more participants:

  • run 2 games in parallel (my preference)
  • or put each team on a separate table and let a team representative travel between the team and the table with the customer/market board (I haven’t tried this!)

In case of running 2 games in parallel:

  • a large enough room to create distance between the tables
  • a common intro with short introduction of the game rules, other detailed game rules are explained “just-in-time” during game-play
  • check with the other facilitator from time to time to check game progress (aim to finish both games more or less at the same time)
  • don’t wait with the retrospective when 1 game has finished (keep the retrospective per game)
  • have a common debriefing, closing asking about lean startup principles linked to the game

Playing Lean double game

2/ Optimise the session according to the available time, aim to optimise for learning

That seems straightforward, but Playing Lean takes time to play. If you aim for default game-play and optimise for speed, there will be little learning about specific lean startup practices. I’ve managed sessions with high-speed game-play and learning about experiments in a 90 mins time-slot.

My recommendation for a decent Playing Lean learning session is a time-slot of minimum 2 hours, ideally 3 hours. Yes that seems a lot, but otherwise you’ll have participants simply playing and not learning much about lean startup tactics.

As facilitator your aim is to make sure participants learn about lean startup tactics, for example by providing extra background information and examples for each experiment.

You must provide time for a retrospective (at least 10 minutes). Not having a retrospective at the end of a game, and players learning the session immediately at the end, counts as a failure.

3/ Don’t use the out-of-the-box experiment cards

The issue with the out-of-the-box experiment cards is that the outcome (numbers of customer tiles flipped) of the experiment is written on the experiment card. As a consequence, players will not be interested in the description of the experiment and have little or even no attention for any explanation given.

Using the out-of-the-box experiment cards, as facilitator you should not give the experiment card to the participants, meaning

  • draw the experiment card yourself
  • and read the experiment card aloud yourself

Some participants won’t like this and to my experience it’s better to put the chance of drawing a successful / failed experiment in the participant’s hands.

Hence: tip 4.

4/ Use custom-made experiment cards

The custom-made experiment cards

  • do not indicate the result of the experiment
  • only show the title of the experiment

As facilitator you explain the content of the experiment, and you can announce the result of the experiment.


Playing Lean custom experiment cards

Optionally you can provide a set of cards for the results of each experiment (so each experiment has a pair: the experiment card and a corresponding experiment result card).

5/ Let the teams keep their experiment cards

Simple objective: at the end of the game, each team can easily count their number of experiment card. You have some statistics to talk about in the retrospective.

6/ Provide experiment background info

For each experiment provide explanation about the technique applied in the experiment, and provide some background info and ideally provide a real-life example.

I like to have this well-prepared: my recommendation is to have a set of digital slides ready, and each experiment has a slide with that additional info (you can use some very visual examples, not simply text-on-slide examples).


Playing Lean session with experiment slides

7/ Manipulate the set of experiment cards available

Using the full set of experiments cards, the game might miss out on experiments explaining essential lean startup techniques. You can manipulate the set of experiment cards available during the game (be careful: do not manipulate for experiment outcome).

8/ Don’t let the same team start each round

Feedback often heard is that the “first-mover” has a specific advantage in the game. In the real-world being a first-mover often isn’t an advantage.

To minimise the dependency on the “first-mover”, a recommendation is to change the team starting a round. For example each round the subsequent team will start. You could further randomise this, but this aspect of the game should not get too complicated.

9/ Retrospect

You must retrospect after finishing the game:

  • Let the participants tell their immediate feedback
  • Let teams indicate their journey throughout the game: what made them win or lose`
  • Look at statistics: number of experiments, number of successful sales, number of unsuccessful sales, number of unneeded features in the product
  • Further retrospect by explicitly linking Playing Lean game-mechanics to lean startup principles and concepts:
    > Build-measure-learn
    > Pivot or persevere
    > Innovation accounting
    > Technical debt

Playing Lean end of game: very busy customer market: collect some statistics

10/ Make technical debt heavier (experimental)

This tip contains tweaking of the game itself.

To make teams feel the consequences of a bloated product (= a product with unneeded features), you could make technical debt count heavier.

For example:

  • penalise selling a product with unneeded features to a customer
  • removing features is more expensive than indicated on the company board (for example removing a features costs 2x people than indicated)


More impressions of Playing Lean sessions