Snowflake Startup is one of the most powerful Agile activities you’ve probably never used. I introduced this exercise to help a team uncover the synergy between ‘customer needs’ and ‘business success’, as they had felt that financial metrics get prioritised above customer satisfaction. However, the truth is that the two are intrinsically linked.
Successful businesses produce products that meet the needs of their customer, whilst maintaining a profit margin that allows them to continue innovating. Satisfying the customer produces revenue, profit allows the continuation of your mission and Scrum provides the framework in which to operate.
The group will split into teams, with the simple objective of running a profitable business producing and selling paper snowflakes. They’ll have five rounds: each consisting of planning, production and sales phases. The customer (played by a willing volunteer) will be the lynchpin to the team successfully generating sales - the teams who truly listen to the customer and take a lean approach to product development will come out on top.
- 10 sheets of white A4 paper per team
- A selection of additional A4 paper in a range of colours
- At least one pair of scissors per team
- Currency for the sales (monopoly money/coins/paper clips)
- A flipchart or whiteboard and pens for each team
- Before the Session: You’ll want to pick a volunteer to be the customer for the activity. They will be the one buying paper snowflakes from the teams and will benefit from a brief in advance.Click here for the customer crib sheet which contains snowflake valuation instructions. Allow some time to go through the crib sheet with your customer volunteer so they understand the acceptance criteria. You can also find the PDF at the bottom of this page.
- Setup: Ask the group to divide up into teams of 3-5 people and find a workspace in the room with their own whiteboard/flipchart.Tell the teams their objective is to: "run a profitable business producing & selling paper snowflakes".Provide the teams with x10 sheets of white paper and £10 (via your pretend currency of choice e.g. monopoly money). Set up the customer in their own space, away from the teams.
- Explain the Rules: No WIP limits. Paper snowflakes can only be made during the 2 minutes production phase. Must only use items provided or sold within the game.Teams can buy additional items in the planning phase only:Paper = 2 sheets for £1 | Scissors = £3 | Inventory holds no residual value.
- Gameplay: There will be 5 rounds in which to make as much profit as possible. Each round consists of 2 minutes planning, 2 minutes production, 3 minutes to sell & debrief.During the debrief, teams must record any revenue, any costs, and their cash balance.
- Hints: During the selling stage, do not stipulate who can/cannot go and sell to the customer, simply say “time to sell your snowflakes” and let them decide who/how they are going to approach the customer.As the rounds go on, you can wander around each team and give them subtle hints:"Do you have to cut out a snowflake to get customer feedback?""Is your team making a profit?""Do you know what the customer wants?""Have you followed the customer around a bit to see what he wants to buy?"
- Game End: When all rounds are complete, get the teams to total their profits. Do a ‘scores on the doors’ summary and congratulate the winning team!Go round each team and analyse their profits - ask the teams what they thought the customer's acceptance criteria where? What were their biggest mistakes and greatest realisations?
These are the key learnings for the team off the back of Snowflake Startup, some may have been realised already and others maybe not. Talk the group through them:“Whose responsibility was it to find out what the customer was willing to buy?”Customer discovery is a whole team activity (product owners can give developers a false sense of security). Did the whole team take the initiative to find out what the customer wanted? Or was it just down to the person walking up to the customer, trying to make the sale? Why didn’t the whole team walk up to the customer?“Where did you need to be to engage with the customer?”You’ve got to get out of the building (or in this case, away from the table) to find out what customers are willing to pay for. The customer won’t come to you in most cases, you have to go to them!“How much value did you place on each phase of the round?”Delivery pressure with creative work makes people forget the big picture. How many went straight into frantic production of snowflakes without thinking about the end goal? How many wasted snowflakes were produced? How much time did teams spend planning vs. producing?“Who assumed they were competing against the other teams?”Business & learning communities work better when we collaborate and share with more people (tables don’t have to remain isolated islands). Did the teams assume they were working in competition with each other? What if they were all squads working for the same company? How much more profit could they have made collectively had they shared information about the customer?“How did you maximise the amount of work not done?”Waste comes from the assumption that we’ve got to use the whole sheet, and that volume is more important than customer discovery. For that reason, ask them how much wasted resource (paper) they had gone through as a result of not knowing what the customer wanted. This was wasted paper and wasted time. That time would have been better spent observing other teams, or observing the customer.“How many snowflakes did you need to produce in order to get feedback?”We don’t have to make anything at all to learn the acceptance criteria: simply go up to the customer and ask– what are you looking for? Response: beauty, symmetry, intricacy, round shape.“Who tried to negotiate with the customer and what was the response?”A customers’ time is limited and precious – use it wisely. Who tried to negotiate on price and got ferociously turned away mid-sale? Today’s customers have the power of information and choice at their fingertips, there is no power in bartering with the end-user as they know the market value for the product. Give them the respect they deserve or they’ll go elsewhere.“What would have happened if the game was one long round rather than five?”Using a number of short rounds to plan, build and sell (collect feedback) has hopefully enabled the teams to make some discoveries, and hopefully some profit. In contrast, if they’d had one long planning phase, one long production phase and one long selling phase - the chances are, they’d produce a lot of waste and not make much profit because they haven’t collected feedback on what the customer wants.
Whether they realise it or not, the teams have operated using Scrum and worked through five sprints iteratively delivering value to the customer. The real power of the Snowflake Startup exercise is that you can use it to teach any of the Agile principles and address real-life issues in the reflective discussions:Do your team struggle with time-wasting activities? Place the discussion focus on the wasted materials and the impact it had on team profitability.Do your team feel torn between giving the customer what they want and needing to be ‘commercially viable’? Place the discussion focus on how listening to the customer allowed you to produce better snowflakes and make more money.Do your team take too long to deliver a working product or solution to the customer? Place the discussion focus on minimum viable product and how they only needed to make one snowflake in order to get feedback (and how using Scrum facilitated that).Do your team lack good communication skills on a day-to-day basis? Place the discussion focus on how they worked together in the team and the communication style used. Had they only been allowed to communicate via written notes, the results (and stress levels) would have been very different.Whatever your team needs help with; you can use Snowflake Startup to facilitate some real lightbulb moments. And who knows - they might have fun in the process.
- I'd like to thank André Dhondt for setting out this activity on TastyCupcakes.org and providing the structure for what is a fantastic Agile learning activity.
- We've put an Agile Avengers spin on Snowflake Startup, but if you want to see André's version please click here to be directed to Tasty Cupcakes.