The Agile Architect

Unbalanced Villains and Overpowered Heroes: An Agile Retrospective Game

In agile retrospectives, teams will often focus on just their weaknesses, assuming any strength is good. But what happens if the team is spending too much time honing the wrong strengths? Our Agile Architect introduces a fun game to explore the possibility.

Unbalanced Villains and Overpowered Heroes is a fun, challenging and insightful retrospective game that allows an agile team to reflect on both its strengths and weaknesses and to understand how members interact and offset one another. Most importantly, it helps identify areas where the strengths and weakness are out of balance, indicating where the team isn't putting enough effort toward a weakness and perhaps putting too much effort toward an overpowered strength. In this column, I'll teach you how to play and, more importantly, how to facilitate an interpretation of the results.

In this column, we'll learn how to:

  • Play the game, timed for a one-hour retrospective.
  • Create an original hero with powers that represent the positive aspects of the hero's team.
  • Create an original villain with powers that represent the negative aspects of the villain's team.
  • Pit hero against villain in fun and exciting strategic game play.
  • Facilitate the game and coach the team through an analysis of the results.

Rules of Play

Step 1: Build a Hero and Villain (15 Minutes)
The facilitator introduces the game. The agile team self-selects two sides, one representing the hero (team strengths), the other the villain (team weaknesses).

The hero side creates an original character that represents the positive attributes of the subject at hand. They draw a picture of their hero and give it a name. Each positive attribute is represented as a power. They can create as many powers as they want.

The villain side creates an original character that represents the negative attributes of the subject at hand. They draw a picture of their villain and give it a name. Each negative attribute is represented as a power. They can create as many powers as they want.

The facilitator helps get the creative juices flowing. The facilitator asks questions to help the sides identify their character's powers, watching the time to make sure the teams are progressing.

Facilitator Questions to Probe During Step 1
Is your character a fair representation of this aspect of your team?

Are there other areas that need to be represented? Perhaps quickly talk through the areas of responsibility of the team.

Is this power specific enough? For example, "Good Communication" can cover just about anything. "Communicating design through well-defined automated tests" is much better for helping to identify imbalances in the team.

Step 2: Assign Points to Powers (5 Minutes)
The facilitator will give each team the same total point value to distribute amongst their superpowers. These should be distributed realistically based on the team's perception of the subject at hand. The total number of points distributed will affect how long the game takes. 100 points is enough to create meaningful gameplay but won't take too long. More points allows the team to explore a greater variety of interactions between strengths and weaknesses.

The facilitator should be listening to the conversations of the sides, pulling out of the discussion ideas for future retrospectives.

Step 3: Agree on the Point Assignments (5 Minutes)
The facilitator pulls the entire team back together to explain its character's powers and requiring both sides to agree that the points as distributed are a reasonable representation of reality. This discussion can lead to good insights that the facilitator can help the team revisit during analysis.

Step 4: Compete (25 Minutes)
The villain attacks first because, well, that's what villains do. The villain side chooses a single power and point value with which to attack.

The hero then counterattacks with an equal number of points from a combination of powers that counter the villain. Both sides must agree that the counterattack is reasonable. In other words, the entire team must agree that the hero's combination of counter-attacking powers represent team strengths that reasonably offset the weaknesses represented by the villain's attack.

The facilitator ensures a fair game and that the whole team comes to consensus on the appropriateness of the counterattack.

The facilitator records the gameplay for future analysis. The facilitator also notes any discussions that should be revisited in a future retrospective.

The battle continues with the characters alternating attacks. The hero or villain wins when they can attack with powers for which the other team has no viable counterattack.

Step 5: Analysis (10 Minutes)
The facilitator and the team review the gameplay. The powers that still have points indicate an imbalance that should be addressed. The discussion focuses on how to add strengths to overcome the weaknesses and whether there are areas of unbalanced strength where perhaps the team is expending too much effort.

Facilitator Questions to Probe During Analysis
Was the game fun?

What was the most surprising aspect of the game or what you learned?

Where are the unbalanced strengths?

Is your team spending too much time on this strength?

Where are the unbalanced weaknesses?

How will your team balance out the weaknesses?

What insights has this game given you?

What areas would you like to explore in future retrospectives?

How would you improve this game?

Final Thoughts
Since creating this game, I've used it many times with many teams. I've also taught it to others who continue to use it successfully. Gameplay has improved over time as we've gotten feedback from the players. As with any retrospective game, its effectiveness is determined by the willingness of the team to spend time to seriously consider the questions being asked of them and analyze the results.

About the Author

Dr. Mark Balbes is Chief Technology Officer at Docuverus. He received his Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics from Duke University in 1992, then continued his research in nuclear astrophysics at Ohio State University. Dr. Balbes has worked in the industrial sector since 1995 applying his scientific expertise to the disciplines of software development. He has led teams as small as a few software developers to as large as a multi-national Engineering department with development centers in the U.S., Canada, and India. Whether serving as product manager, chief scientist, or chief architect, he provides both technical and thought leadership around Agile development, Agile architecture, and Agile project management principles.