The Ball Point game accelerates teamwork

One of the biggest hurdles to coaching the benefits of self-organization is that teams need to get rid of the reactive mindset. The Ball Point game is an agile exercise developed by Boris Gloger that teaches people the benefits of autonomy and distributed authority.

This game makes people acknowledge how rules and bureaucracy get in the way of teamwork. Your team will realize the importance of developing an open, agile, adaptive, and collaborative system.

This is my version of the game that includes some specific rules to challenge participants even more.

What is the Ball Point game?

The purpose of this game is to move as many balls as possible from one basket to another. This agile game is played a total of three or five times. Each round includes a different challenge to highlight a specific organizational issue.

The basic rules are that each ball must be touched at least once by every team member and have air time. After two minutes, the team gets one minute to discuss the process and how it could be improved.

How to facilitate the Ball Point game

To play the Ball Point game, you’ll need an ample open space with enough room for everyone to stand. Divide the larger team into groups of 5-7 people each. Ask each team to form a line.

You’ll need two baskets per team, one containing 50 ping pong balls and the other empty. Place each basket on both extremes of the line.

You will need a whiteboard or flipchart to keep a tally after each round.

The Rules

The rules are straight forward. I’ve made some changes and various variations since I first became familiar with this game many years ago.

  • Each ball must be touched at least once by every team member on each line/ group.
  • Each ball must have air-time (at least one second in the air when passed from one person to another)
  • The balls that are dropped to the floor can’t be recovered.
  • Score: Each ball that successfully gets into the basket counts +1 (plus one); each ball that is dropped to the floor counts -2 (minus two)
  • There are a total of three or five iterations, depending on the time you have.

Ball Point Game dynamics

Explain the rules. The goal is to win the game by scoring the most. However, the ultimate goal is to learn. People tend to cheat during the ballpoint game. It’s great to have a co-facilitator who can monitor that everyone is acting reasonably.

At the beginning of each round, introduce a new “rule” in addition to the overall rules stated before

Round 1: We will play the game the “way we do things here.” We will use plastic spoons, one per person, because “that’s how this organization plays the game.”

Remind the team that there needs to be air time.

Round 2: Play the “telephone game.” Name a team leader –anyone who’s not the most senior person– and ask them to define a game strategy without sharing it aloud.

Ask the ‘leader’ to whisper directions to one person, and then that person has to whisper to the next person, etc. Play the game. Remember, spoons are still mandatory.

Round 3: Play the game the way the boss wants.

Ask the most senior person on each team to work on a strategy. Give that person 1-2 minutes to think alone without consulting the team. The leader has now 30 seconds to share the new strategy. Let them play and see how it goes.

This round is a perfect example of a command-and-control decision-making process.

Round 4: Now turn the game into an open democracy. Create an imaginary suggestion box. Give everyone a minute to ideate a new strategy on their own and write it down on a piece of paper.

When time is up, everyone has to submit their suggestions to the most senior person. The game starts while the “leader” is still going through all the proposals, trying to figure out which one is the best way to go.

The purpose of this round is to show people how having too many ideas can be as chaotic as having none.

Round 5: Open collaboration. Let the team brainstorm all together (give them 1-2 minutes) using a “Yes, and…” approach.

Let the team play freely and implement the strategy based on the brainstorm above.

The purpose of this round is to show how, when we remove rules and let everyone contribute, teams come up with better solutions.

Coaching Tips

After the exercise, debrief for ten to fifteen minutes.

Compare results across teams and across iterations. Usually, when teams are free to decide how to play together—without dumb rules or managers directing their actions, performance dramatically increases.

Groups should celebrate wins and improved performance. Then ask, “What worked best, and why?”

Other questions to guide the conversation:

  • How did the team learned about collaboration and making decisions?
  • What worked and what didn’t? Why?
  • How important were retrospectives?
  • Which team dynamics worked best, and why?
  • What have you learned about leadership and collaboration?

Discuss how rules and hierarchy usually get in the way of effective collaboration. Draw a parallel between the game and everyday work experiences.

In the last iteration, people have complete freedom to play the way they want. However, most keep playing with the spoons because no one told them not to.

Usually, when organizations remove constraints, people don’t realize it. And everyone keeps working the same old way.

Additional Reading

Self-organization: how to get your team started

People Don’t Need to Be Empowered (They Want This Instead)