Agile Games — Using ‘Battleship’ for Demonstrating Pivoting based on Learnings

Introducing the principles and values of Agile to non-software development teams — in my case, sales and marketing teams — means helping make abstract concepts become practical lessons for the all-important “ah-ha!” moments. One of the best hands-on approaches I’ve found is using a modified version of the board game Battleship so that those new to agility have a fun way to learn why continuous improvement through frequent and fast learning enables them to pivot in the market and achieve better outcomes.

In order to level set, I want to help everyone understand the concept of Battleship, so go over the basics of the game:
* There are only two teams in Allusive Battleship: Team A and Team B. I encourage teams to come up with fun team names, but for the purpose of this article, I’ll keep it simple.
* The game is played on a 10 by 10 grid with rows (numbers) and columns (letters) where ‘ships’ are placed that take between 2 and 5 spaces. This is their defensive fleet. In on-site training, I use flip chart paper and tear off two sheets per team (one sheet for Defense; one sheet for Offense).
* I pre-draw a 10 by 10 grid on all sheets. Teams get to guess where the opponent’s ships are placed by calling out the coordinates of the Column (letter) and Row (number) from their Offense sheet where the other team will check to see and call out if their opponent scored a ‘hit’ or a ‘miss’.
* In this version, there are a total of five ships per team with the following number of spaces each:
(1) Two-space Destroyer
(1) Three-space Submarine
(1) Three-space Cruiser
(1) Four-space Battleship
(1) Five-space Aircraft Carrier
NO overlap of “ships” allowed.
NO diagonal “ships” allowed.
* By taking alternating turns calling out one shot at a time to the other team (who is hiding their defensive board from view), each team hopes to score hits on and ‘sink’ all of the opponent’s ships.

Normally, this game is played so that each team learns where their hits and misses land (by capturing the ‘hits’ and ‘misses’ on their offensive 10 by 10 grid which they mark with an X for a ‘hit’ and an O for ‘miss’). The first to sink all of their opponent's ships wins the game.

The Agile Battleship Game Twist

The purpose of this game for Agile training is to introduce the concept of longer-term planning versus short-term planning and the ability to iterate and pivot based on fast and frequent learnings. Because of this, I introduce a modifier that illustrates the long- versus short-term planning: one team plays the game as usual, but the other team has to pre-select five moves ahead (call out the Column/Row for 5 sets of coordinates at a time).

The end result is that the team with the longer-term planning of five pre-selected ‘shots’ to take cannot change their shots until after they’ve taken all five shots and then pre-selected their next five shots. Statistically, the teams with the 5-shot rule end up losing about 9 out of 10 times. Every so often, one of these teams gets lucky and has good guesses even with having to pre-select their next five shots at the end of each five turns, but it nicely illustrates that other than luck, short-term planning (weekly or bi-weekly in real-world terms) will allow individuals and teams to pivot based on learnings much faster than teams focused on quarterly goals.

At the end of the game, we discuss the advantages and disadvantages of taking one shot at a time and quickly adjusting their planning compared to taking pre-selecting five shots without any chance to adjust until after all five shots have been taken. This illustrates, in a fun way, why we focus on iterative work with Agile and helps teams see the value of the difference in how they plan and execute their work prioritization.

Allusive Battleship played using flip chart paper between teams seated at opposing tables.

Below are the full rules for Allusive Battleship so that anyone can take and do this exercise with their teams.

Copy-and-Paste these Allusive Battleship Agile Game Rules

Create two teams (Team A & Team B) of roughly an equal number of team members (up to 5).

Each team will have two “Allusive Battleship Sheets” with Rows A through J and Columns 1 through 10. One sheet is for their fleet (Defense); the other sheet is for their attempts to find and sink the enemy fleet (Offense).

Teams draw “ships” as rectangles (horizontal or vertical only) of these sizes:
(1) Two-space Destroyer
(1) Three-space Submarine
(1) Three-space Cruiser
(1) Four-space Battleship
(1) Five-space Aircraft Carrier
NO overlap of “ships” allowed. NO diagonal “ships” allowed.

Each team will have two minutes to plan how they would like to place their “ships.”

When a shot is taken by calling a specific Column and Row space (‘A9’, for example), “misses” are shown as ‘O’ drawn inside the grid square, and all “hits” are shown as ‘X’ drawn inside the grid square.

Team A plays the game as usual, but Team B has to pre-select five moves ahead (call out the Column/Row for 5 sets of coordinates at a time). For example A1, A2, C2, D1, D3 as the first five pre-selected shots. These cannot be changed and must be called in the order they were chosen.

Team A gets one minute to plan their next shot. Team B also gets one minute to plan each one of their five hits, which they write down in the order they will call these shots.

The game is played one shot at a time per team, alternating so that both teams only get to take one shot at a time. The difference is that Team A can make adjustments to their next shot after each turn, but Team B cannot make any adjustments to the five shots they pre-selected and must continue to pre-select the next five shots throughout the duration of the game.

The end result is that the team with the longer-term planning of five pre-selected ‘shots’ to take cannot change their shots until after they’ve taken all five shots and then pre-selected their next five shots. Statistically, the teams with the 5-shot rule end up losing about 9 out of 10 times. Every so often, one of these teams gets lucky and has good guesses even with having to pre-select their next five shots at the end of each five turns, but it nicely illustrates that other than luck, short-term planning (weekly or bi-weekly in real-world terms) will allow individuals and teams to pivot based on learnings much faster than teams focused on quarterly goals.

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Anthony Coppedge

I lead the vision for how business agility is infused in Digital Sales at IBM. I relish the chance to sabotage mediocrity.