Prioritizing Features and Projects: The Coin Toss Exercise

agile coin tossThis is a variation of “Value Flow” exercise that Sanjeev Augustine did at Scrum Gathering 2009 in Orlando. I found this exercise very useful to demonstrate the benefits of prioritization and lower batch sizes. I have facilitated a variation on this exercise with different learning objectives. Below is a detailed description of how I run this exercise.

Time:

15 – 20 minutes

Input:

  • 20 coins of different kinds (1,5,10,25, etc.)
  • Secret stash of 20 coins of different kinds (1,5,10,25. etc.)
  • Table large enough for 4 people
  • Stopwatch (1)
  • Participants (5)
  • Facilitator (1)
  • Time keeper (1)
  • Flip Chart or Whiteboard
  • Chart or Whiteboard markers

Setup:

  • Create a table as shown below on a flip chart or White Board
Round 1 Round 2 Round 3
All Coins
1st Coin
Total Value

Participant roles:

  • Delivery Team member (4)
  • CEO/Portfolio Manager/Product Owner (1)

Exercise Steps:

Round 1: Batch Size ALL

  1. Ensure all team members can flip or toss a coin.
  2. Start timer
  3. The first delivery team member flips a coin until it turns heads. Repeats this step for all the 20-25 coins.
  4. Only after the first person is done with all the coins, the second delivery person works on the first coin in the batch until (s)he is done is with all the coins.
  5. The third person picks up the entire batch and then the fourth.
  6. Time keeper records the time taken for the first coin to be flipped to heads by the last team member.
  7. Record Total Time on Chart (Row 1st Coin)
  8. Time keeper records the time taken for all the coins to be flipped to heads by the last team member.
  9. Record Total Time on Chart (Row all Coins)
  10. CEO/Product Owner calculates the sum total of monetary value represented by the coins.

scrummasterFacilitator sets up context that the organization is facing stiff
competition and they have to deliver much faster than they did
in Round 1.

Round 2: Improve Time to Market!

  1. Facilitator removes the restriction that one person has to complete all the coins before the next person can pick any of the coins. Team members do have to follow the sequence of processing through team members.
  2. Facilitator asks the delivery team to do a quick 2-minute retrospective on Round 1 and plan for how they will approach the same problem without the restriction of flipping all coins before passing to next step.
  3. Facilitator kicks off round 2, at the end of timebox. Delivery team members may ask for more time for retrospective, but it’s important that the facilitator holds the 2-minute timebox sacred.
  4. Start Timer
  5. Delivery team begins flipping coins
  6. Time keeper records the time taken for the first coin to be flipped appropriately by the last team member.
  7. Record Total Time on Chart (Row 1st Coin)
  8. Time keeper records the time taken for all the coins to be flipped appropriately by the last team member.
  9. Record Total Time on Chart (Row all Coins)
  10. CEO/Product Owner calculates the sum total of monetary value represented by the coins.

describe the imageFacilitator sets up the context, that although the time to
market was okay, competitors have gained parity and the
organization has to focus on delivering higher customer value.
They need to improve on that!

Round 3: Competitive Threat! Prioritize and fix release date

  1. Facilitator asks the delivery team to do a quick 2-minute retrospective on Round 2 and plan for the how they will approach the problem this time.
  2. While the team is doing a retrospective, facilitator asks the CEO/Product Owner to prioritize coins based on their monetary value.
  3. Facilitator declares a time box for round 3. This time box should be the lesser of 4 minutes or the time taken to flip all coins by everyone in Round 2.
  4. Delivery team begins flipping coins.
  5. When the first dime comes off the line, tell the team “customer feedback, dimes have no value”
  6. Facilitator hands secret stash, another random collection, of coins to the CEO/Product owner.
  7. CEO/Product owner can reprioritize the new collection with other coins that have not yet been picked up by the first person.
  8. At the end of declared timebox, time keeper declares time.
  9. CEO/Product Owner calculates the sum total of monetary value represented by the coins.

Debrief:

Facilitator debriefs participants and other witnesses on the exercise. This will vary significantly depending on people’s experiences. The intention of the three rounds is:

Round 1 sets up the organization to deliver fixed value (total monetary value of coins). Team members usually are working at a frantic pace to get most through put with the CEO/Product owner cheering them on.

Round 2 is still about delivering fixed value, however after the retrospective team members intuitively reduce the batch size. So instead of passing 20 coins at a time, they hand off 2 to 3 coins at a time to the next person in line. I have observed that as compared to round 1, the team takes much lesser time to deliver on the same. Improved time to market!

Round 3 is about delivering maximum value with in fixed timebox. This is significantly different than Round 1 and Round 2, since in this case the product ship date is fixed. Somewhere in round 3, injecting customer feedback that “all dimes are useless”, induces additional uncertainity since no one can predict customer behavior/trend. At the end of the round 3 timebox, the team often delivers higher value than round 2 and round 1 even with the uncertainity induced through customer feedback. Debrief points are around product owner prioritization, injection of customer feedback and fixed release dates.

The coins in this exercise may represent features or projects within a portfolio. It is very hard to kill projects/features even after we know that they are not worth the effort. There is tremendous value in killing low-value high-cost projects.

Have fun! I’d love to hear your feedback about how it went for your team.

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