Solving Real Problems through Collaborative Innovation Games: An Interview with Michael Vizdos


Michael Vizdos shares his experiences with innovation games, collaboration exercises that dramatically improve the way people work together. Plus, Michael shares his perspective on what the agile and waterfall methods mean to the new generation of testers.

Michael Vizdos will be presenting a presentation titled "Solving Real Problems through Collaborative Innovation Games" at the Agile Development Conference and Better Software Conference West 2014, which will take place June 1–6, 2014.


Jonathan Vanian:  Hello and today I'm with Michael Vizdos. Michael will be giving a session at the upcoming Agile Development Conference in Las Vegas. Let's start out Michael and just have you talk a little bit about yourself, and what you do, and your career this far.

Michael Vizdos: My name is Mike Vizdos. Thank you for having me on here today too. I've been in the agile industry since about 2001 when really it got started. I started out my career back in late 1989 with Ross Perot and Electronic Data System. Spent seven years there working with big system things. Worked on an operating system called OS2 for a while with IBM. We broke off and started a hospital IT company, took that one public, started another dot com which turned into a dot bomb, pretty drastic, lots of lessons learned from that.

Started working with a guy name Scott Ambler back in 2001. We signed our first contract on the morning of September 11, 2001. Not a great day to start the company.

Jonathan Vanian: Yeah, I can imagine.

Michael Vizdos: Over those four years we were working with rep implementations, the rationaling of processes and patterns that large enterprises had. We wrote a book on that. During that time I met Ken Schwaber and learned about Scrum. This certified ScrumMaster class from him back in 2004.

Jonathan Vanian: One of the first students, there you go.

Michael Vizdos: Yeah, it was the first 500 I think, it was somewhere in there. I started working with him and was intrigued because I was able to actually deliver software that people were using which was kind of cool. Because for the longest time that really wasn't happening.

Zoom ahead almost 10 years now and I've been really spending a lot of time working with clients around the world implementing agile with different techniques. Scrum is one of them and I do some of the test-driven development. I wouldn't consider myself a expert in the technology side; I'm more of the facilitation side.

I started the comic strip with the chicken and pigs about 2006. . .

Jonathan Vanian: Very cool.

Michael Vizdos: At implementing Scrum. People either love it or hate it. I'm OK with them because it does spur conversations.

Jonathan Vanian: Are you working with primarily large organizations, or small? What's the sort of clientele like?

Michael Vizdos: Yeah, they're all over the map now and I'm saying no to about 90% of the calls that come in. Really I'm looking for clients that really want to try to effect some kind of change.

Jonathan Vanian: Much easier said than done.

Michael Vizdos: Yeah. I spend a lot of time up front qualifying people to make sure we're a good fit because I don't have a really good filter a lot of times. I do have some opinions and a lot of hard lessons learned that I want to share.

Jonathan Vanian: The session you're going to be talking about is on innovation games. I guess we can start off by asking how did you get involved with innovation games? How did you hear about it and how did you start implementing it?

Michael Vizdos: I read a book from a guy named Luke Hohmann and Luke and I had bumped into each other at conferences over the years when we were both talking or speaking at them. The book intrigued me, and I read it, and I thought, well OK, here's a good tool to use at different points in the agile development work. I was like, OK this is a great tool. He invited me to come to, I think it was San Francisco at the time, and take his class as one of the innovation games facilitators and I did that. The real value was the connections that I made, the people that I met there. Really the top people in the industry were also there. With any industry conference, it's less about the content of all the sessions and more about the people that you do meet at these sessions.

Jonathan Vanian: The networking.

Michael Vizdos: Yeah. It's vital that you make some really, really good connections. That's been a huge part of my success over the years. Don't be afraid to talk to people and I do invite people when they're there, let's talk. Whether it's innovation games or any other topic you want.

Jonathan Vanian: Let's just explain a little bit about innovation games. What are they?

Michael Vizdos: They're really a way to get people to collaborate and the session is really going to cover what is collaboration and why is it important. It really does spur on a lot of information about when you don't have any collaboration, you're kind of screwed with conflict because there is no conflict because there is no trust. This is a great tool and there's a great set of tools within innovation games to allow people to use different techniques at different times to help eliminate that fear of conflict and build more trust. Which is really one of the cornerstones that, if you look at the five dysfunctions in teams, it talks about.

Jonathan Vanian: It's battling the fear of conflicts? That's interesting that it's not even necessarily the conflict that's there, it could be just the fear of leading into something, or stepping on someone's toes.

Michael Vizdos: If you look at the Bruce Tuckman model where he talks about forming, storming, norming, and performing this is really helping teams get out of that storming phase where they've got to actually face the conflict and get out of it as a team.

Jonathan Vanian: What are some examples of conflict that a team could be facing?

Michael Vizdos: A lot of times people that I work with are introverts, I guess is the right word. Most of the people in this industry, we don't get energy from groups. Here we are in an agile world where people are throwing us into groups and saying work together

Jonathan Vanian: Share your stories, start collaborating.

Michael Vizdos: What the heck. It brings up a lot of problems and what I see a lot is almost passive aggressive behavior. People that say, oh yeah, we want to do agile and then they do everything they can to trip it up.

Jonathan Vanian: When they trip it up, what do you mean by tripping it up?

Michael Vizdos: With any change, you want to go back to doing what you were doing before. Whether it's weight loss, or quitting drinking, or quitting smoking, any kind of change is hard. These innovation games really do help work different ways in getting past that as a team.

Jonathan Vanian: Let's talk about an example of an innovation game. Maybe we're dealing with some passive, aggressive people here.

Michael Vizdos: One of the great ones that I use at retrospectives, let's say a Scrum agile team, is something called speedboat. Where we actually draw a speedboat, and I'm not really a good artist by the way, up on the wall and really have people put a scene around this speedboat. It's a boat that's above water and there's an anchor that goes down. People get pretty artistic about this. It's kind of scary how artistic some of these things look by the end. Really the purpose of this is to identify the good and the bad that's happening. Instead of going through what went well, what didn't go so well, this really does help open up some different conversations around what's happening that is good and bad from many different points of view.

Jonathan Vanian: It's asking everyone to contribute something to the overall picture.

Michael Vizdos: It really does give you a good indication as a group of, 'god, does this thing all suck? Are we doing well?'

Jonathan Vanian: Are we a sinking ship?

Michael Vizdos: Most of the teams that I work with is on one extreme or the other. They either want to up their game because they're a high performing team, or they are totally screwed.

Jonathan Vanian: How about another example of a type of game?

Michael Vizdos: Maybe for prioritizing features, and this is really in the product backlog refinement, there's a game we play called 'buy a feature'. It's a competitive game to have people all get different kinds of money and say, here's the feature list we have, here's the money, game on. Figure it out, right? Who's going to get the highest value features?

It's good because really with that, everybody doesn't get the same amount of money so that all the dynamics change in that game which is really fun to watch.

Jonathan Vanian: They're not given the same amount of money so they're divvied up just random portions? How many people are usually involved in these games?

Michael Vizdos: Anywhere from 5 to 50 and they do some of them that have 500 or 1,000, they're huge games these days. I haven't done any of those that big.

Jonathan Vanian: Are these games scalable? A game that can work with 5 teams can work with 500?

Michael Vizdos: Yeah.

Jonathan Vanian: OK, so they are.

Michael Vizdos: Luke has a lot of these games on line now and I know he publishes a lot of stuff with cities and counties around the US, especially on the left coast. I'm not involved in any of those.

Jonathan Vanian: About how many games are there? It's a pretty broad question but, for people just getting into it what can they expect? How many games can they expect if they try to do the research?

Michael Vizdos: If you do the research there's probably about a dozen games right now. A dozen to about 15 or 16. Like with anything though, it's a good tool box to know why are you playing this game? Because playing a game just to play a game is dumb. It's like doing those ice breakers at conferences, or whatever, you're like, what the heck.

Having a purpose and knowing a purpose, that's really what we're going to talk about during this session. What is the purpose of this? We'll go through actually how you do it and then debrief about what was good and bad about that.

Jonathan Vanian: Can you give an example about a time when you had a client who was, let's say, they were doing really poorly and how games came over to benefit them?

Michael Vizdos: That speedboat one is one I use fairly often. Just recently last week I was at a clients and they used this. Instead of using a speedboat, we actually drew a sailboat, which still just looks like a crappy boat for me because I'm not really a good artist. By the end of that, they really were able to identify the top five things. They had probably hundreds, hundreds of little sticky notes on this thing. It lasted about four hours to do this. They had a top five and they were to prioritize one, two, three, four, five of things they were going to work on to help get the team better. Some of them were taking notes and some of them were engaging in better feedback. It comes back to lots of the collaboration and conflict resolution,.

Jonathan Vanian: How long are these games typically last?

Michael Vizdos: They can be pretty quick, they can be anywhere from 10 minutes to 3 or 4 hours.

Jonathan Vanian: Is that, I'm assuming, dependent on the size of people and all that?

Michael Vizdos: Really what it is you want to get out of the game. With any of the games I find that the debrief, or the retrospective after, is vital. If you just play a game and there's no purpose to it, people will get lost quickly.

Jonathan Vanian: What goes on during a debriefing session?

Michael Vizdos: It's almost like a mini retrospective. I use a lot of Esther Derby's format for that, her five steps.

Jonathan Vanian: It sounds like a really interesting session. Let's just talk about the things in agile. You've been at agile in this place for a long time. What trends are you seeing that we should be aware of?

Michael Vizdos: From a testing perspective, I'm seeing testing get a lot of love right now in the agile space.

Jonathan Vanian: That's good.

Michael Vizdos: Yeah, it's weird because it didn't for a long time. When you said test-driven development, they would say throw a bunch of testers in a room and that's test-driven development. Which we know is not true. It's coming around to where I see a lot of agile teams, the testers, and the developers, and architects, and designers, and DBA's are actually collaborating together. It's less of an us versus them mentality.

Jonathan Vanian: Do you think that's because of the more wide spread acceptance of agile? What counts for that?

Michael Vizdos: Part of it is that, part of it is just I think people are not accepting working in silos any more. When I first started doing this, there was a lot of contention between agile versus waterfall. Today it's a lot between agile versus total chaos. Some people don't even know what waterfall is any more, which is awesome to hear.

Jonathan Vanian: That's amazing, just a totally new generation, they have no idea.

Michael Vizdos: Yeah, I've got to a presentation and they're like, what is this waterfall you speak of Mike?

Jonathan Vanian: Do they know what configuration management is?

Michael Vizdos: Yeah, but they're not looking at it. They're looking at it from the modern tool set not whatever we used to use for OS2 development.

Jonathan Vanian: How about trends and tools? You're not fully into technical aspect but maybe is there something that you've been seeing?

Michael Vizdos: Here's my main tool. I'm not selling Post-It notes, I don't have stock in Post-it notes but that's still my main tool. Face-to-face collaboration.

Jonathan Vanian: Face-to-face, right? You're seeing more of that these years as compared to the past, I'm assuming?

Michael Vizdos: Yes, absolutely. People are making more of an investment because they know it does pay off.

Jonathan Vanian: How about management, how is management acting in today's age with agile? There's a lot of people that say they want to be agile, but then a lot of people say they don't get the support that they need from management.

Michael Vizdos: The job of management is to grow and empower, which is a yucky word, their people and help them become better. Not to be commanding control. That group of management is fading away more and more even in the large organizations. Where I see still a big breakdown is at the strategic level. Let's say that the senior vice presidents and above who are looking at long-term strategy versus the director level, where it's all tactical. What I'm finding is if you don't have that connection between strategic and tactical, this is not going to work. At the tactical level with directors, they get basically re-org'd every nine months and it's kill or be killed. That's how they move up. That's a hard thing that I'm seeing still in the industry today. I know Michael Spade and Lisa Atkins are doing a lot of work right now in that space, so if you ever get a chance to talk to them or take a look at what they're doing, good stuff.

Jonathan Vanian: Definitely. Very good resource. All right, well we're coming close to the end here so I guess we'll just leave with a final question. What do you want session attendees to take away from your session?

Michael Vizdos: Some new tools in the tool box.

Jonathan Vanian: Sticky notes.

Michael Vizdos: Sticky notes, no not really. Just to be aware that there's other tools out there. Just because you have a tool doesn't mean you have to use it all the time. I see that a lot with, well I know agile so everything has to be agile but that's not really the case.

Jonathan Vanian: All right, well thank you Michael for taking time out of your day.

Michael Vizdos: Thank you, appreciate it.

Jonathan Vanian: Yep, definitely.


About "Solving Real Problems through Collaborative Innovation Games":
Are you having trouble getting people in your organization to agree on a path forward? Is collaboration sometimes more like a contest to see who can yell the loudest? Is it difficult to get customers to give you the information you need to create a product charter or unambiguous requirements? Achieving meaningful collaboration with a diverse group of people can be very difficult. Michael Vizdos shares his experiences with Innovation Games, collaboration exercises that dramatically improve the way people work together. You’ll practice with exercises that are easy to use, fun, and encourage working together in a structured fashion. This structure guides successful collaboration, helping participants stay on track and avoiding non-productive, free-for-all discussions. Learn how to choose the best Innovation Game for each situation. Leave with an understanding of how and why structured collaboration with intellectual games is one of the most productive ways to help people work together toward a common goal.


vizdoThe author of, Michael Vizdos travels internationally working with clients to improve product delivery to their customers using Scrum and other agile techniques. He is a Certified Scrum Trainer with more than twenty years of experience in all facets of software development and product delivery. Michael is active in the lean startup community, coauthored (with Scott Ambler) the Enterprise Unified Process, and speaks at user groups and conferences about these topics—and more! One of his current projects can be found at Read more about Michael at, contact him at [email protected], or follow his daily exploits on Twitter @mvizdos.

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