Productivity & Effectiveness

How I teach Business Agility with a simple puzzle

By 18/04/2021 One Comment

I’ll never forget the first time I ran my Releasing Agility workshop using a kid’s puzzle. Would it be too immature? Would the audience resonate with it? Or would they think I’m a childish fool?

All of these thoughts, and more, were rushing through my head as I lined up 25 managers and execs in a hotel conference room in Hampshire.

As I introduced the game I was worried I was wasting their time. As it happened, it was a roaring success. They were engaged, they had fun but more importantly they came away with some wickedly insightful lessons on business agility.

The fact that a kids puzzle, designed for 3 year olds, resonated so much with business leaders says something deep about how people come together at work.

Are we just like kids? Is there a timeless truth about what happens when people come together to solve a problem?

After this first session I proceeded on a campaign of childish teachings. I’ve run this agility basics workshop over 700 times now.

I’ve run this game for teams of 6 people all the way to 140 people in a room. And it works. It gets people buzzed and fired up. It’s got so many lessons that it’s ridiculous. I’ve only listed the obvious ones in this post – but there are always more.

In one company they wanted to keep the puzzles to play this game with those who couldn’t make it!

The Game

So here’s how the game works and I’ve stolen a little bit of this from Mike Rother and the Toyota Kata.

The game I like to use a simple “Match Them Up” puzzle. The one I use is from Tesco (and sadly you cannot buy them anymore).

Top Tip – If you’re going to run these games, find one that works for you and buy many packs of it.

Each game pack has about 25 puzzles, so I can cover 5 small teams of 5, with one game pack.

Each puzzle has three pieces; a descriptor of the image, an image of the “item” and a number. The goal is to match the three things up.

Here’s how to run the game

Step 1 – is get people into teams of 3-5 people. I typically run the workshop for 20 + people, so you could end up with 4-5 teams.

Any fewer than 3 people in each team and the team-working lessons are less effective. Any more and the game takes longer. Which isn’t a problem really, but the workshop can drag on.

Step 2 – ensure the puzzle is already built on each table. I usually ensure there is one more puzzle than the number of people in the team. So, if you have 5 people in each team, I would ensure there are 6 Match Them Up puzzles.

Make sure that you give some teams really easy ones, like those with fewer items, or ones that are different colours so they can quickly pattern match. And give some teams harder ones, like those that are the same colour, or those with higher numbers, or with less obvious images. Random can work.

Step 3 – Ask them to take a good look at the built puzzles. Explain that the goal of this game is to build the puzzle again and the team with the fastest time wins. Grab a whiteboard or sheet of paper and write down the names of each team with plenty of room to write down the complete times. They will be playing the game around 5 times, so leave room for 5 sets of results for each team.

The more visible this is, the better.

Step 4 – Ask them to unbuild the puzzles, shuffle them, turn the pieces over and then stack them high. The bottom of the puzzles should be facing up. This is the current reality for today. Their goal is to turn the puzzle pieces over and build it, then shout when they have completed the task.

Step 5 – Grab a timer and get them prepped. Explain it’s competitive.

Tell some jokes (if that’s your style) and get them excited about competing with each other. Ask them to move drinks and other items away from the table, as it’s going to get animated.

Step 6 – What’s their strategy?

At this point you should ask them what their strategy is for the game. How are they going to unstack and build the puzzles in the fastest time? Ask them to jot this down on some paper. Observe the dynamics and how long this takes them.

Step 7 – Run the game.

Ask them to “go” and then time it. Make a note of each team’s time on a flip chart or board. Once the game has completed (as in, every team has completed the game), ask them to reflect and come up with a strategy for the next round. Same rules, same game but maybe they will have a new strategy.

At this point I always tell them that they don’t need a new strategy if they don’t want one, they could just try the same thing again.

Step 8 – Rinse and repeat. I find that 4/5 rounds is enough to spot the many lessons we’ll go through in a minute.

Step 9 – Ask them to reflect and write down what they observed themselves at the end of each round. I write these down on a visible whiteboard. My experience tells me that most teams get about 70% of the lessons that the game shows – which we’ll come to in a minute.

Step 10 – Go through the reflections with them, then pull up a slide or some other communication that explains the following lessons.

The Lessons

Lesson 1 – You gotta know what you’re trying to deliver

This is the most important aspect of any piece of work, whether that be a change program, moving to agile or simply delivering something of value; we have to know what it is we’re trying to create. For those familiar with my Releasing Agility model, you will know that is the step 1; paint a picture.

This painted picture should be clear, compelling and interesting. We may never build it perfectly in the world of work like we can in this simple game but we need to know what we’re trying to build. Most business problems I help with leaders and manager with comes down to people not knowing what they are doing.

Something many people comment on in the game is that they don’t always know “how” to build something until they have done it at least once. This is important. We often expect perfection first time but that is misguided. We get better by trying the work and doing it, like in this puzzle. The more we can try the work, the better we can become.

Lesson 2 – Lean into your current reality

Again, the comes straight from my Releasing Agility model – step 2 which is knowing what your current reality is – and then building a plan to overcome the obstacles. A good question to ask is this:

If we know what we’re trying to achieve, why are we not already there yet?

And this can help you identify the gap between the two – and then put in place a plan.

Once you have these things, you have a strategy. We know where we are (honestly) and we know how to get to the future state. Again, in business I see this often. Leaders may paint a bright picture of the future but they are unwilling (often due to politics) to lean into the current reality and accept what it is. They created the current reality so it can be hard to own up to that and deal with it. Better to just keep muddling on.

In the game the current reality is the puzzle pieces stacked upside down and in a random order. The world of business is more complex but the essence remains the same. Why are we not already there yet?

Once we can become clear about our current reality, we can create better plans for dealing with the obstacles and opportunities present in front of us.

Ever seen an agile or change transformation fail? I have seen a great deal of these. Why do they fail? Usually because people are unwilling to accept the current reality and put in place a plan. They simply hire specialists and coaches without realising the current reality is a problem that belongs to managers and leaders.

Lesson 3 – Every team’s work is different – don’t compare

One thing that comes out from the game is that everyone’s work is different. If you’ve pre-stacked the puzzles with a level of difficulty this will be even more evident.

I often get people say that other team’s puzzles are easier or simpler. This is an important lesson in our workplace too. Not everyone’s work is the same. As such, it makes no sense at all to use maturity models and compare agility across teams, yet people do this all the time. They are trying to measure the unmeasurable.

Everyone’s work is different, as such it makes sense to compare business agility at a department and team level based on yesterday and today. Are they getting better, smoother and quicker at delivering? Not compared to other teams, but compared to yesterday.

Of course, we will also want to look at a higher level across the whole value stream of delivery of customer work. This will always cross teams. But to say that team A, when they touched the work, had a maturity or velocity or cycle time of X, but team B, when they touched the work were slower is nuts. We need to understand the work involved and it will be different.

Don’t compare teams with basic agile measures. Work hard at flowing work across functional boundaries. Measure “agility” at a team level compared to yesterday (or last week, or month) and at a value stream flow level.

It’s too easy to say Team A is quicker, when Team A’s work could be easier. Study the work.

Lesson 4 – Not all teams are equal

Similar to Lesson 3 – not all teams are equal. Everyone in the business is unique with their own skills and experience. As such, it’s important to understand how these people work and who does what. Some people are slow and steady but get the job done right first time. Some people are fast but deliver work that needs redoing. Some people work better with others. Some people are more motivated than others.

This is a management challenge. We don’t manage teams, we manage individuals, or put in a better way – we work WITH individuals. So, it’s important that managers get to know their direct reports and give them work that plays to their strengths and to build teams of people who can get the job done together. It takes time and effort.

But when we expect everyone to work in the same way and then compare them against others, we are setting everyone up for failure.

Lesson 5 – Feedback loop is short

In this game the feedback loops are short. It takes about 10 – 30 seconds to test the strategy that people have come up with. If they have someone aligning the numbers, someone doing the images and someone doing the text, then it takes about 30 seconds to see if that strategy works. Maybe they have some doing the colours, or each person is assigned a puzzle each – whatever, it takes about 30 seconds to see the results of this experiment.

Yet, when you ask people to define a simple strategy in between games, you often see them taking 2 to 5 times longer to discuss the strategy than it would take them to run the game. Sometimes, you will see people shooting down others people’s suggestions – this is especially obvious with strong characters and leaders and managers.

They spend so long planning that they are missing the fact that it takes such a short time to get feedback.

Of course, our work is more complex and the feedback loops and consequences for failure, could be longer and more impactful. But this is the essence of agility; shortening the time between idea and feedback on the implementation.

This means breaking work down, making it visible, measuring it and then taking action on it. Feedback on the work is important – how can you construct the world of work to get rapid feedback?

In the game it’s obvious, in our work, less so.

But I see this lesson all the time in business – leaders spending days, weeks, months, years sometimes doing planning and defining everything – when people could do the work, experiment and try – and get feedback.

Remember lesson 1? We learn by doing the work – not spending additional time plotting and planning and strategising. It’s important to have plans but it’s also important to test the plan and strategy. It’s important to do the work and get feedback.

When you facilitate this game – keep an eye on how long they spend in between games talking about what will work – and talk to this in the reflection points.

I saw one team of leaders prattling on for 4 minutes about what strategy would be better. Egos, opinions and the need to be `right prevailed. They identified 5 different ways of completing this silly puzzle over the 4 minutes. Each strategy takes about 30 seconds to run.

5 x 30 = 2 minutes and 30 seconds.

It would take them 2 minutes and 30 seconds to test ALL of their ideas, yet they spent 4 minutes discussing them.

When I pointed this out to them, they were embarassed. Interestingly, a brave soul in one of the other teams said this is precisely what they were doing with the real business strategy. They were discussing it for months, rather than testing and taking action. A powerful and humbling lesson.

Lesson 6 – We know what done looks like

A lot of people comment on this one. They have a defined end point. The puzzle is either complete or not. There is no grey area. If the puzzle is not built correctly during the game, they keep going until it is.

In work, it can be hard to define what done looks like. In the agile world there is this concept of the Definition of Done (DoD). It’s a good concept to adopt in our work. What does done look like for our work?

Some work is harder to quantify than others, but we should have some form of quantifcation or measure that the team can use to say they are done. I see this often, nebulous work that nobody has broken down, that just keeps going. People keep pottering on, not quite sure what success looks like.

Change programs are a great example of this. Leaders embark on a change program with little in the way of a painted picture or measures of done. 10 years later, with thousands of consultants and a fatigued workforce, they still keep going. But going where?

Lesson 7 – It’s a safe place to work

If you’ve facilitated this session well you will have created safe place to run the game and talk about the lessons. It’s rare to get any major fallout during this game, but it can happen. Certainly a lot more likely with leaders and managers in the session. I find this is usually because they created the problems that people raise – and it’s seen as a slight to them, rather than merely evidence for a change of working.

But usually, it’s a fun and safe place for people to learn – that’s what we should be aiming to create. It’s the same lesson in business. Leaders and managers could work hard to create a safe place for people to experiment, ask questions, challenge and come together to take on work. It’s a cultural thing – and it comes from leaders and manager behaviours. If people are reprimanded for making mistakes and trying new things (which may not work), then people will shy away from making change.

As with everything in business, there is a chance our initiatives, work and strategies may fail. But these failures and mistakes (if explored carefully) are merely an opportunity to make the business better. Managers and Leaders must encourage exploration, experimentation and the risks of failure. It is there job to guard against catastrophic failures, but everyday mistakes are simply a way to get better.

In this game you see this playing out. The safer you can make it, the more open the conversations about the lessons will be.

Lesson 8 – Not all experiments result in a positive outcome

As teams alter their approach and strategy they will see their results of the game shift. Sometimes though, the results will get worse. They will get slower.

It is the same in business. Sometimes, we will embark on a change or approach that makes our business results worse. This is why the key measure I use when releasing agility is “business results”. As in, what are the measures of success for the team? Why do they exist? Why do they have jobs? What is expected from them? And we focus on these business results.

Velocity, cycle time, throughput, work in process – those very typical measures that many agilist focus on, are simply measures of productivity. It is entirely possible to move smoothly and quickly towards the wrong things.

Business results matter and sometimes our work can make these results worse. Keep measuring and keep experimenting in small careful ways. And if something is making the business worse – look at what that is. Is it a blip? Or a trend? And what can you do?

Lesson 9 – There is a maximum each team reaches

At some point, usually in the 3-4 round, the team’s times start to even out. It’s a sort of maximum they reach when everything is slotting into place and people have found their groove.

This is the same in business. When a team are working well a maximum is often reached. There are two clear ways to look at this.

They could have optimised to a certain point where more “optimisation” of the process and work yields minor results. It could be worth pursuing further if your business needs demand it.

A second way to look at this is to assign more work and pick up new challenges. You could do this in the game. For the final round throw in more puzzles, or maybe a different type of game alongside. This is a resetting moment and you will witness the lessons played out again, as the team become familiar with new work and uncover how they will solve these new problems.

This is the same in business. A team may reach a maximum given the work, the team and the system they are working in. Keep going if you need to get smoother and quicker, or give more challenging work.

We like to feel challenged but we don’t like to feel overwhelmed, so finding that right balance is the key to good management and releasing agility. Too much work and it’s overloading and overwhelming. Too little and we’re wasting potential.

Lesson 10 – Don’t switch strategies too soon

This lesson is the key to winning the game. The teams that win usually pick a strategy that plays to who they are and helps them overcome the problems. They stick with it and they get better. They practice and they follow the process. They have the discipline to do the work.

We see this in the business world. Teams fatigued by change programs that change every few months or years. Leaders trying new large scale transformations before giving the last one time to bed in. There is no harm in switching from something that does not work, but often we don’t give strategies enough time to bed in. We don’t give people enough time to adjust, find the norms and learn to deal with the challenges they face.

Fatigue, chaos and low morale follow. Not to mention a decline in business results as people scramble to adopt yet another new way of working.

Lesson 11 – Cooperation is as important as collaboration

At some point someone is likely to say that the game is a good example of collaboration. Collaboration is the buzz word of the decade in business. It is important but I see collaboration as a way of people coming together to work in harmony with each other to achieve a goal.

In our world of work though, we often have to work with people we may not care much for. Not everyone likes everyone else in business. Team competition, poor behaving people etc – but we often have to work with them.

In some cases, I know the history of the people in the room when I run this game. So, I purposely put people who don’t get on with each other, in the same team. This forces cooperation; the act of cooperating with people we may not like or work well with.

Cooperation is just as important as collaboration, yet I often see strategies in business falling apart because of individuals and teams who compete, or simply refuse to work well with others, just can’t work with each other to deliver what the business needs.

The best way to overcome this is to “force cooperation” by setting shared goals and holding everyone accountable for achieving them. This game does just that.

Lesson 12 – Have Fun

If you’ve facilitated well and bigged up the game it should be a fun session. People will be laughing, joking and be energised from the activity. Work should be fun but for many people it is drudgery.

Fun is like the canary in the mine. It’s an early warning system. If people aren’t having fun (for the majority of their time at work), then something is wrong. You have to ask whether you are doing the right thing if people are not having fun delivering it. There will be times when work is not fun but these times should be the exception, not the rule.


After over 700 editions of this game, I am certain it’s extremelty effective at demonstrating what business agility is – and how to release it.

As part of my workshop where I run this, I also include a seminar style session on the principles of business agility too. If you’d like one of these inspiring and exciting sessions, then drop me a line. If you’re going alone with this game, I wish you the best of luck and hope you see the success I have had with it.


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