Are children more collaborative and creative than adults? (Part 2)

Thursday, 13 September, 2012

This is the second in a series of blog posts covering the highlights of my trip to Cheriton Bishop Primary School in Devon.

The purpose of this trip to Cheriton Bishop Primary School was for me to test two theories; are children naturally more creative and free thinking than adults in problem solving scenarios? And are groups of children naturally more collaborative than groups of adults, when given a team task?

You can read the first part of this series here, if you haven't done so already.

Experiment 2: Musical Bells

The Theory

This is a game I co-created with fellow coach Geoff Watts to demonstrate the difference between DOING agile and BEING agile. The hypothesis I wanted to test was that children would achieve better results than adults in this exercise, due to their more natural tendancy to collaborate and create, and altogether more agile spirit. As a musician myself, I know how collaborative music-making and performance is, so I knew this would be a good way to expose agile behavior.

The exercise itself is very simple. Each team (5-8 people) are given a set of eight musical bells. Each bell plays a different note. The game is time-boxed for 8 minutes.

The goal of the game – to create and perform a short (30 sec) piece of music.

The rules of the game are as follows:

  • The performance must be recognisable to the rest of the group
  • The performance must be ‘tuneful’ (easy on the ear)
  • All team members must play a bell at least once

The teams were given no sheet music, for reasons which I will explain in the conclusion. Although the bells were colour-coded, the notes each bell played were unknown to the teams.

So how would the ten and eleven year olds deal with this challenge? 

The Set-up

Of the thirteen children in the class that day, only four were learning a musical instrument at the time. So we made sure those skills were spread equally across each team. On the teacher’s advice, we planned to start this exercise immediately after the morning break (15 mins). We did however brief the children on what they would be doing after morning break to build the anticipation. The result of this was children who came back into the classroom, gasping for air and eager to start. And then it struck me. If this is something all of us did (and enjoyed)in school, why did we stop doing it in the office? Sure, pairs of developers may shoot some pool together during a coffee break, but that involves minimal blood flow to the brain. Playing XBOX is even worse for energy levels. So next time you are about to take your team into a creative sprint planning session, why not take them out into the car park for an impromptu game of ‘tag’ for 10 mins. Not only will it be fun, more everyone will feel energized back in the meeting room and hence be much more creative.

The Results

Quite simply I was amazed. Not only did the children embrace the exercise, they excelled at it. Each team produced a tune that was both memorable and indeed tuneful. They also had a lot of fun doing it.

A great example of a collaborative team starring Molly, Niamh, Lucy, Joshua, Alfred & James (aged 10 & 11)

The most interesting thing for me here was the truly diverse nature of this particular team. Molly (far left) is visually-impaired. She requires additional help during lessons and spends more time working alone at a computer screen reading enlarged versions of books and exercises. Yet during this exercise, her team didn’t exclude her. In fact, they gave her the extra responsibility of ringing two bells rather than just one. Molly told her teacher shortly afterwards how much she enjoyed that exercise. This proves how variety of exercises in the classroom proves that everyone can find something they enjoy – sometimes it’s not just about exam results and assessment, we should be encouraged to do what we enjoy.

Interestingly, one of the children is this team was a very talented violinist (up to Grade 5 standard.) Whilst I expected such a talent to stand out in the group and be pushed to the front by their peers, I saw the exact opposite occur. In this case, the proficient musician in question played a huge part in the eight-minute preparation time; helping others with intonation and timings, spotting patterns and listening for imperfections in the music. But when it came to the end performance this person would be largely unnoticed to a neutral observer.

James (far right) plays only the final note in the end performance.

The Conclusion 

I spent some time observing all the teams during their eight minute preparation time, where I saw their processes change empirically. All teams quickly established a simple tune to copy and rehearse. Nursery rhymes proving the most popular. For me, this represents the power of a simple, cohesive and well-understood vision in a Scrum project. Everyone knows what the team are aiming for.

Having tried this exercise with both adults and children, one of the most interesting things I always see is how fearless children are in ‘being the first to ring the bells’. Adults will sit and stare at the bells on the table and dare not ring one for fear of social embarrassment. Children have noticeably less fear. Even the most un-musical children can’t resist the temptation to start playing with the equipment. We need to create an environment in our Scrum teams where people feel safe amongst their peers. I feel this is one of the primary responsibilities of the ScrumMaster in that team. If people can be comfortable with each other, they will have less fear of failure and more willingness to try new ideas.

I also saw how individual personalities start to form and influence other team members even in school. Some of the more talented musicians in the group took control and became frustrated when the team couldn’t relate to them on the same musical level. Yet some, like James, were more natural servant leaders how would happily use their skills to enable those less-musical in their teams. In essence, I could see each of the Scrum roles demonstrated from different class members during this exercise.

The key to succeeding in this bell ringing exercise is repetition. With no music and no labeling of bells, upfront planning is going to almost useless here. A simple tune is key, and lots of testing. Trial and error identifies the order of notes and irons out the defects in the music.

If the team achieves success here, it will be down to BEING agile. The learning process is empirical, plenty of testing and a strong overarching vision combined with collaborative team spirit is a winning formula. The comparision of DOING agile in this exercise would be giving the team the sheet music. This artefact would rarely be questioned or changed. Roles would be formed around it, and it would become a restriction to our own creativity as musicians.

And I guarantee that DOING agile will be a lot less fun than BEING agile.

Disclaimer: all pictures and videos have been used with the consent of the parents of those involved. Many thanks to those parents and the staff of Cheriton Bishop for facilitating my visit.