Playing Lean facilitator tips

Note: This is an older post with game experience based on the first version of Playing Lean. Meanwhile, I have been working with Playing Lean 2.

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

The following facilitator tips are based on 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 six people

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

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

Don’t run a game with only two 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 two 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 the case of running two games in parallel:

  • A large enough room to create distance between the tables
  • A typical intro with a short introduction of the game rules. Other detailed game rules are explained “just in time” during gameplay.
  • 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 until one game has finished (keep the retrospective per game)
  • Have a common debriefing, closing by asking about lean startup principles linked to the game.
Playing Lean double game

2/ Optimise the session according to the available time, aiming to optimize for learning

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

My recommendation for a decent Playing Lean learning session is a time slot of a minimum of 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 a facilitator, you aim to ensure participants learn about lean startup tactics, for example, by providing extra background information and examples for each experiment.

You should provide time for a retrospective (at least 10 minutes) if you are 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 (number of customer tiles flipped) is written on the experiment card. Consequently, players will not be interested in the description of the experiment and will pay little or no attention to any explanation given.

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

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

Some participants won’t like this, and in my experience, it’s better to give the participants the chance to draw a successful / failed experiment in their 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 a 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 game’s end, each team can easily count their number of experiment cards. You have some statistics to talk about in the retrospective.

6/ Provide experiment background info

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

I like to have this well-prepared: I recommend having a set of digital slides ready. 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 complete set of experiment 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 minimize the dependency on the “first-mover”, a recommendation is to change the team starting the next round. For example, in each round, the subsequent team will start. You could further randomize this, but this game aspect should not get too complicated.

9/ Retrospect

You must retrospect after finishing the game:

  • Let the participants give 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 the match: bustling 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:

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

More impressions of Playing Lean sessions