Written by a team of New Signature project managers: Ana Huertas, Kobby Acquah, Louisa Morren, Edward Wong
Escape rooms are metaphors for work and life, and contain many lessons that can help in each. For the Applied Innovation PMO team, we approached it as a vivid illustration of the challenges we face in Agile Projects, as well as a great team building experience. Join us on our journey to learn something of ourselves by surviving a vengeful vampire Escape Room, Agile style.
As IT Project Managers/Scrum Masters at New Signature, we
- work on a variety of engagements related to intelligent cloud, modern workplace and Applied Innovation.
- enable multiple matrixed teams of highly skilled professionals; manage schedules, budgets, Risk and Action Item (RAID) Logs;
- monitor our quality and work hard to remove any blockers day in, day out.
- work collaboratively with our client teams so that once the first project experience with New Signature nears an end, the project objectives have been met and we can revel in closing it out feeling a sense of collective accomplishment.
- get it done as a team, whether delivery happens in Waterfall, Agile or Hybrid.
Six of us–Ana, Daniel, Louisa, Kobby, Edward and Warren–recently went on a team building activity involving a vampire-themed escape room, coffin and all! Yes, you read this correctly, coffin. We’ve decided to share our experiences from a project management perspective since at its core, we were a self-organizing team running a sprint. If you are a Project Manager/Scrum Master reading this, all of what’s to follow will make perfect sense, in a very geeky PM/SM kind of way.
Starting with the Basics:
- Our Sprint Goal: To Escape (shortest goal ever!)
- Our Certified Scrum Master and Product Owner: our lifelines at the Escape Room venue. We will refer to them as Drac and Ulla to protect their identities
- Our Scrum team: The 6 cellphone-less PMs/CSMs don’t normally work together on a day-to-day basis, so it was a good proxy for a newly formed team coming together to tackle an endeavor.
- Our key constraint: time. We had 1 hour, divided into 4 Rooms (Sprints) of 15 minutes or less. We could iterate as much as we wanted but knew that at the 1 hour mark the jig was up.
- We had a brief 5-minute kick-off with Drac and Ulla. Key to this activity were the probing questions to prepare us for what was to come, some of the ones we asked are below:
- Do you have high ceilings in there? Yes
- Any suggestions on strategy? Don’t get stuck and by stuck we mean 10-15 minutes without moving forward. We allow teams to ask for up to 2 clues in order to make it into our record books if they get out
- Are you watching us? No, this means you need to push a button if you want a clue
- Our Backlog: we had one Epic (the story that Drac and Ulla shared with us before entering the room so we’d have context), quite fuzzy to be honest. But then again, aren’t all epics that way? In the Escape Room world, each room contributed clues (user stories) and keys for locks (acceptance criteria) to get us closer to “Done”.
- Our ground rule: Communicate. We would all need to know what we were doing, seeing and finding.
- In an Agile project, work is split up into pre-defined time durations called “sprints”. At the start of each sprint, the team selects, from a prioritized product backlog of work, what can be worked on during that time period. Then the team executes on the work. Once the duration expires, the sprint is complete, and whatever is not completed drops back into the product backlog for a future sprint. Finally, a Sprint Retrospective allows the team to learn from the sprint.
- Room #1 (Sprint 1):
- (Sprint Planning) We decided to approach the first room in pairs and started putting everything we had gathered in one location (Product Backlog of Work).
- (Sprint Execution) We chatted about what could be required versus optional or a distraction. We weren’t sure. We found a lock and determined we needed to find a key to keep us moving forward. We had many great ideas, we time checked and decided to ask for clue #1.
- Drac came in and removed our blocker, we cracked the riddle and opened the first lock. (Sprint complete)
- Room #2 (Sprint 2):
- (Sprint Retrospective) We gathered and determined what we learned from the prior room.
- Do not destroying any clues in the process.
- Looking beyond the surface for issues or answers. In the Escape Room, we initially missed clues that required blacklight to reveal them.
- (Sprint Planning) The team got together and discussed how to tackle the current room.
- (Sprint Execution) The skillsets and knowledge from each of the team members started lighting up the path forward, to name a few:
- Map reading and coordinates
- Knowledge of Braille
- Experience with a certain distinct type of lock
- We were time checking. The team felt we were close to resolving the clues, so we held off on asking for a clue.
- We cracked the riddle, high fives all around. The positive energy was tangible, and we were pumped to go to the next room. (Sprint complete)
- Room #3 (Sprint 3):
- (Sprint Retrospective) Once again, we gathered and determined what we learned in the previous room which would help us in the current room:
- Maintain the rule of thumb – 10 minutes and if no progress, ask for help
- Make sure everyone was busy looking for something that would help us keep moving.
- Task pickup and Owning it: whatever task you took on yourself, you owned it. Don’t withdraw or disengage, be in the moment, think about how and what to contribute and feeding from each other
- (Sprint Planning) This one was particularly hard. The team took the lay of the room, and defined a plan to tackle.
- (Sprint Execution)
- We were looking for all the clues, discussing among us but we were struggling. We time checked and made the decision to ask for clue #2.
- Ulla came in and removed our blocker. Full disclaimer: we believe that clue #2 was half a clue. We forgive you Ulla!
- We were brainstorming, and suddenly, one of our team members decoded the last clue and we found the solution which enabled us to open the third lock. Yeah! (Sprint complete)
- Room #4 (Sprint 4):
- (Sprint Retrospective) Lessons learned from the prior room:
- Perform frequent time checks throughout
- (Sprint Planning) Were we in the final room? Is this done? We had no way of knowing, we had 15 minutes left on the timer.
- We took all our user stories that were part of the sprint and gave it everything.
- (Sprint Execution) Everyone had a task to own: making sense of coordinates, mentally resolving riddles, observing for clues, etc. We were communicating all over with what we were seeing, finding, making sense of it all.
- We had the final numbers and were working through the sequence in the lock. One of our team members was on the lock, putting in the numbers in all sequences were sharing. And Bham! Luck, lock opened! Last Key, Acceptance Criteria met and sign-off completed. Did we break a record? We were 5 minutes shy. (Sprint complete)
With each room (sprint) lasting just under 15 minutes, the team successfully completed the tasks (sprint backlog) in each room (sprint), learning from each (retrospective) and escaped each room (sprint goal) successfully.
A few take-aways as we went back to our work lives:
- Scheduling and timing are important. Keep your eyes ahead to upcoming challenges so that you can manage your time today.
- Taking stock of what you have is important. At the start of each Room (Sprint), asking the questions “What have we got?”, “What is our goal?”, “Who needs to do what?” are important questions to ask, both in work and in life.
- Have fun! To maintain our sanity, humor, teamwork and collaboration were important attributes to have, both in Escape Rooms and work.