The first bar night at Agile Coach Camp 2015 I told Franklyn Geerling about how I used Black Stories. He then encouraged me to host an open space (thanks!), which I gave the same name as this blog post. Today that session turns out to be one of the fire starters which sparked life into this blog.
Black Stories is a (children’s) riddle game which needs creative and lateral thinking to solve. At first I played the game during summer camp with kids and observed the effects. Based on that, I started using it with great success on my project at KLM/Air France. They had helped my team to better think out of the box and even look forward to meetings.
Somehow (things often seem so silly in retrospect…) it didn’t occur to me this practice could also prove valuable to others. Judging by the feedback and ‘thank yous’ I got at Agile Coach Camp [web] and later, it turned out many coaches are in need of practical advice. They seem to find it a welcome and energizing change from some of the heavier-on-the-mind holistic sessions.
What Are Black Stories?
This is what the back of the box tells you about the game:
50 black stories, 31 crimes, 49 dead bodies, 11 murderers, 12 suicides and one deadly meal. How could all this happen?
Black stories are tricky, morbid, sinister riddle-stories.
Solve the riddles! Reconstruct the particulars of each incident, piece by piece, by asking questions, guessing, or puzzling over the evidence. It’s a spine-chilling but fun guessing game that no party should be without – and one that will no doubt soon have you under its spell.
On first sight not something you would bring into the office to start off meetings with. Well guess again, because that’s exactly what I did. Not just any meeting, mind you, but mainly the ones where creativity is key (shouldn’t all meetings). Do things start to make sense already? If so, keep on reading; if not yet, keep on reading too. 😉
Where I Got the Idea
Why did it even occur to me that Black Stories might be useful in the workplace? In order to answer that, I need to make a short sidestep to my volunteer job. I’m a summer camp coach for a group of up to 60 kids ranging in age from 13 to 16. By playing lots and lots of games of Black Stories with the kids, I started to notice specific things. My inner ‘German Scientist’1 got awoken by curiosity. This large group of kids would be perfect to try some harmless ‘experiments’ on. So I started observing the performance difference between more and less experienced kids. Wow, it wasn’t hard to notice that the more experienced kids were training themselves to think out of the box!
This group seemed to understand that continuing questions on one topic would not solve the puzzle. Over the camp week they became much more proficient at initiating questions on new topics.
This is the concept of lateral thinking [wiki]; “using reasoning that is not immediately obvious and involving ideas that may not be obtainable by using only traditional step-by-step logic.”
Then the ‘German Scientist’ voice in my head spoke the famous words:
Jawohl, if this works on ze kids, it will surely work on ze grown-ups!
It Works on Grown-Ups!
As the observant reader will have read between the lines, these kids showed quite some traits we appreciate in the workspace. By observing the kids, I saw Black Stories…
- reward lateral thinking
- spark creativity
- make people think out of the box
- learn people to ask the right questions
- start collaboration; from ‘no, but’ to ‘yes, and’
I consider this already an impressive list for a simple game. Now as if these things aren’t great enough by themselves, I discovered even more benefits by putting it into practice.
A side-effect which I didn’t foresee has to do with the fact that most people enter meetings unprepared. People are bad enough at planning so that most will have to quit a complex task to join a meeting one minute later. This game helped a lot with getting people out of their previous context. Turned out to be an effective energizer to clear the mind before an actual meeting.
This might surprise people who know me, but as a Scrum master I was quite strict on starting the meetings on time. Within a few weeks this game helped pavlov [wiki] my team to arrive on time (my inner ‘German Scientist’2 strikes again). People would rush to the toilet and grab coffee a few minutes up front, to avoid missing out on the beginning. Not that I wouldn’t repeat the scenario, but they would’ve missed crucial opening questions. Being strict on time is good behaviour I haven’t seen any other group or team do till current day!
Lone Nut > First Followers
The concept of using Black Stories at the start of brainstorms or meetings is pretty solid by now. I’ve been using it for over two years, facilitated an open space with Eddy Bruin3 at Agile Coach Camp ’15 and did a workshop at Agile Testing Days ’15 [web]. It is fantastic to share thoughts with other coaches on how to best implement them. Thanks for all the enthusiastic messages and feedback I got from people who started using them. You really helped me give shape to the concept as it stands today!
If anyone’s interested, my ATD workshop in Germany was so well received, the organisation asked me to repeat it at their Netherlands edition:
— AgileNL (@Agile_NL) February 11, 2016
Last month I was at the Play4Agile [web] unconference and had another successful open space about Black Stories! Also shared a surprising try-out of a Retrospective using storytelling dice there. It turned into an awesome collaboration with @Alex Kylburg and lots of the other participants. Will surely write a future blog on that, but first I’ll report out on Play4Agile 2016 in my next blog post.
If you’re still reading, my guess is you’re at least slightly interested in this whole concept. In these last chapters I’ll explain how to play a game, give you some hints and finish with buying tips.
This is how it works: Black Stories [BGG] is a ‘game’ which contains 50 oversized cards. One person is the game master who reads aloud a scenario card to the other players. The scenario hints that someone died in an unusual way, hence the title of the game. In silence the game master reads the back of the card, which holds the solution to the riddle. Other players then start firing questions at the game master. It is most fun when he answers mainly Yes or No, although he’s free to give hints at his own discretion. The goal is to guess what happened that explains the unusual death.
Not wanting to overdo it and bore out the team, I decided to use them on the Scrum events [web] that require the most creative thinking. One game to start the Refinement (not an offical Scrum event) with and another one to kick off the Sprint planning. Since we ran a two-weekly sprint, that boiled down to one game a week. Please be aware of the fact that this game is pretty simple, but will hardly reach these outcomes without a decent facilitator.
In my experience it’s best to set a (mental) time-box for how long you want to play this. If your team’s Retrospective takes less than an hour, you don’t want to spend 20 minutes on one scenario. In my book it is about massaging the mind before a meeting, not about draining all the energy out of your team. On the other hand the team also won’t find it fun and engaging when you rush to finish it within a few minutes.
By now I must’ve facilitated over a 100 games, so I do it on gut feeling instead of timer. If I had to recommend something I would advise to stay below 10 minutes. Play around with the time, depending on team size and meeting length. That means you need to recognize early when the team will get stuck on a decoy or when they need a proper hint. The good part is you will train yourself by just facilitating a lot of scenarios.
The fact that I can play most of the cards with teenagers, is no permit to overlook social or cultural factors! Grown-ups might get offended by some of the themes in this game; murder, adultery, suicide, etc. This might not apply to all 50 cards, as lots are about accidents or way absurd deaths, but still keep this in mind, please.
As a tip I wouldn’t tell all the ins and outs of this blog to your team. Telling people you’re trying to make them ‘do stuff’ often backfires. It turns the magical into something mechanical and makes it feel like work. I also forbid you to drag your team into this if they don’t want to play or don’t enjoy it. Your team has to be willing to try it out. Else I can guarantee you it will be an unrewarding experience for everyone involved.
Just Do It!
Let’s not forget how you can start! For around €10 you can get your hands on a box of cards. Each box contains 50 scenarios and solutions, so if you do one weekly, that €10 will last you a year. That is on the same team, if you switch teams, you can reuse them all. Might even be good for practicing the facilitation part.
There are lots of versions published in this series. You have other colors (White, Green, Silver, Blue and Pink Stories) which give you ghost, forest, space, etc themed stories. These are much more childish and random, so I would not recommend them.
They’re published in like ~15 languages [BGG] ranging from Czech to Japanese and from Brazilian to Latin. The scenarios contain lots of hidden wordplay and double layers. Whenever possible I would recommend to get them in your team’s native language!
Then left are the themed ones like Black Stories Office, Bible, Medical, Movie, etc. Unfortunately most of those only seem released in German, as I can imagine they can fit your organisation or project even more.
You can’t go wrong when you stick with the default Black Stories (up to edition #10). @Gitte Klitgaard made me aware that only the first edition was translated to English. The good news is that Z-Man Games started republishing them as Dark Stories last September. Keep an eye out for those if you’re done with the first box of 50 cards in English.
Would love to hear below if you start using them, get different mileage or find other uses. For more ideas to put the fun in functional take a peek at My toolbox [blog]. Thanks for sharing!
For everyone who attended my presentation at Agile Testing Day NL ’16, below is the presentation.
No, I’m Dutch. Yes, my last name “Gross” sounds German. No, I’m really not. Yes, I’m sure about that. Okay, I confess my last name originated centuries ago somewhere in Austria. ↩
Yes, I know Pavlov was Russian and not German, I linked to his wiki… No, I won’t explain this German thing again. Okay? ↩
@Eddy Bruin uses Black Stories to explain the ‘Five Orders of Ignorance’ by Phillip G. Armour. Feel free to contact him if interested. I might even request him to do a guest blog here if there is enough interest. ↩
Also published on Medium.