Spirit Animals – An Agile Exercise on Perceived Limitations

I’ve been running an agile exercise during my conference sessions about Agile Transformation Beyond the Team that I thought would have a lot of value to the broader agile community. I created the exercise with my partner before working here at Velocity Partners, but I think the value of the exercise is important for any organization and especially for change agents in those organizations.

Exercise Setup

Agile Exercise: Bison
Agile Exercise: Bison

The exercise uses 6 pictures of animals with 3 adjectives associated with those animals. I specifically chose some negative adjectives for what I perceived would be the “popular” animals and associated positive adjectives to the “unpopular” animals. A link to the Word document I created for the exercise is located here.

For the animals, I used:

  • Bear
  • Tiger
  • Wolf
  • Sloth
  • Giraffe
  • Bison/Buffalo

To set up the exercise, put the photos of the animals up around the room on the walls about 15 feet apart. I usually place the pictures about 6-7 feet up on the wall so they can be seen from a distance. Just underneath each picture, spaced about 3-4 feet apart, place the different adjectives. Put one of the adjectives directly below the picture and the other two on either side, sort of like an org chart layout. Make sure each is covered up with a paper or something to obfuscate the adjective. We want people picking the animal while not knowing what the adjectives associated with it are.

For my exercise – because I’ve run it so many times – I laminated all of the pictures and the adjectives. In the early incarnations, though, I just printed out the adjectives and folded the paper up over the adjective and taped it to the wall. The version I posted is designed to have the adjectives cut out so you may need to change it so each adjective has its own page. It may be slightly more wasteful, but it’s easier to execute.

Running the Exercise

Agile Exercise: Wolf
Agile Exercise: Wolf

I usually run the exercise right at the beginning of my talk or my training. Ask everyone in the room to stand up. Point out the different animals around the room. Name all of the animals so people know what their options are. Then ask the people to go stand under the animal that they think best represents them. Allow the participants some time to socialize – just a minute or two should be plenty.

Now ask the people to go stand under the animal that they think best represents them – professionally, personally, or both. Allow the participants some time to socialize – just a minute or two should be plenty.

Once they’ve all settled, point out the covered adjectives and ask the participants to help in uncovering the words. There will likely be some groans as people see the adjectives uncovered.

Agile Exercise: Adjectives
Agile Exercise: Adjectives

Now tell the participants: “Now go stand under the adjective that best describes you.” Some people may ask you if they can move to another animal’s adjective. Just repeat the instructions. Don’t let them know if they can or can’t move.

If someone decides to move, ask them why they’re moving. Who gave them permission to move to another animal? Question the decision and scold them a little, but don’t stop them from moving.

Once everyone finishes their movement (if any), it’s time to debrief.

Retrospective on the Exercise

During the retrospective, ask people what they thought about being asked to pick an adjective? What did they think the rules were? Why did they move or not move? What about people who did move and were chided? How did they feel when they moved?

There are some learning opportunities here.

  • Many people will stay under their animal because they weren’t told they can move.
  • Many people, when trying to move and chastised, will go back to their original animal.
  • People will start moving if they see someone else start to move.
  • Was there a “good enough” adjective for people under their original animal but a better choice elsewhere?

Goals of the Exercise

There are some big takeaways for me in this exercise:

  • People put themselves in invisible boxes based on what they think they should do, not what they can do.
  • People, when scolded, become meek and risk-averse; most of the time they’re being “corrected” for not following the “way we’ve always done things”.
  • People are willing to accept “good enough” even when “better” exists elsewhere.
  • People are unlikely to initiate change but will join in if they see someone else do it.

We want to encourage our participants to be change agents. That’s going to mean breaking through the invisible walls we place around ourselves. Sometimes that can be uncomfortable and we’ll get our wrist slapped for taking risks. But no risk means no reward – and no change. There’s an adage that says: If you don’t ask the question, the answer is always “no”. We need to be willing to take that criticism in the interest of making improvements. We need to, as Wikipedia puts it, “be bold”.

@ Velocity

An agile exercise like this can go a long way to highlighting how a team works and how they can challenge the status quo. My focus at Velocity is on the 3 P’s – People, Practices, and Partnerships. I like to think that a good partner will sometimes tell you things you need to hear but may not want to. There is a bit of a balancing act required in being a good partner who’s constructive and not overly critical. But I think we do a good job there and work to help our clients be even better.

Closing Thoughts

I love this agile exercise for a lot of the reasons that I’ve outlined above. If we’re asking people to be change agents in their organizations, they need get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It can be difficult, but applying yourself at the right time and challenging the status quo can pay huge dividends. As Grace Hopper – computer programming pioneer – once said: The most dangerous phrase is “we’ve always done it that way.”

Feliz entrenamiento, mis amigos! (Happy coaching, my friends!)


Bill DeVoe