The Lifeboat: a game about prioritization and value


The Lifeboat is a game for 2 to 30 players (and probably more if you have several facilitators) that lets you discover and manipulate the concept of value and prioritization of a backlog, all of this in about an hour.

The participants are going to learn what is this nebulous concept made of, how to handle it in a context that includes multiple teams and/or in an environment in which several contradictory demands suddenly disrupt the previously established vision.

Such a workshop is of particular benefit to the Product Owners and to every stakeholder of a product built iteratively.

this game does contain a lot of black humor and may contain some cynicism. Even if its content remains far less shocking than a Game of Thrones episode, at least you’ll have been warned.

Welcome aboard the Gigantic

sinking-boatI have one good and two bad news. The good news is: the participants are all crew members of the Gigantic, which is a very luxurious cruise ship. Now, the bad news number one is: this ship is presently sinking. There is still a bit of time to arrange for the evacuation of the passengers, but we don’t know how much exactly; so, we must act quickly! Now, the bad news number two is: for some stupid budgetary reasons, there is only one lifeboat, and so, we’ll have to arrange for several trips in order to rescue all the passengers… But, as the crew doesn’t know how much time is left before the cruise ship gets entirely submerged, it must be considered that every lifeboat trip could be the last. And so, we’ll have to choose with great care who’s going to board first!

Setting up

  • Form groups of 1 to 5 players
  • Cut out the passenger cards as well as the boat that you’ll find here: Life Boat – EN – the passengers, then form a deck
  • Deal each group of players one deck and one lifeboat
  • Explain the information given on the passenger cards to the participants: names and genders of the passengers, their ages, heights and weights, followed by the conversion of these measurements to the numbers of squares they would occupy on board the lifeboat (a 1×1 square person would only occupy one seat, whereas a 2×1 square person would occupy two seats), their family situations (marital status, number of children, etc.), places of residence, and one tiny little thing about them, a piece of more or less positive personal information
  • Show a copy of the lifeboat and explain it is a very standard eight-passenger model

I. Women and children first… Or not!

  • lifeboat3Give the participants 15 minutes to explore the list of the passengers and decide, in groups, who they are willing to rescue first
  • Then, carry out a debriefing, a review of the findings
    • At this stage, one or several groups may have chosen to overfill the theoretically 8-passenger lifeboat. In such a case, you need to explain the consequences of boarding extra passengers: the lifeboat would possibly either sink or become extremely slow due to the excess load. It’s exactly like trying to load a team’s sprint over its capacity: there are higher chances of failure
    • Compare the lists of rescued passengers in each group, and the rules they’ve been using as well to make their choices. Chances are they will differ from each other!
    • From the same material, you do get various orders! What do the participants think about this? Is it normal? Is one of these priority rules better than the others? Remind the participants of the “value” criteria being contextual and often pertaining to some convention that can make them subjective. In fact, what do the participants think about the subjective side of the criteria they’ve been using?

I. (bis) No excess load this time (optional)

  • overloaded-lifeboatIf you got at least one group boarding extra passengers, give them 5 minutes to get a passenger list that wouldn’t exceed the lifeboat’s optimal capacity (i.e 8).
  • In the meantime, use the VIP passengers and stowaways, who are certainly not on the official list as they are here undercover, to test the priority rules of the other groups. Imagine for all of them a character who would test the limits to their rules. For instance, if they are willing to rescue the attractive people first (yes, it did happen once!), what would they do with a model winning the title of Model of the Year although she would occupy 2×2 cases because she is a “large-sized” model? (Sure, you can imagine an even more challenging character)
  • During the debriefing, you may discuss whether it is wrong or not to make exceptions to one’s rule when a very special case or an oversize opportunity appear.
    You will find a template here: Life Boat – EN – VIP and Stowaways

II. Sail for your lives

  • Carry out a new iteration for 10 minutes. Now that the groups have exposed their priority rules, who are they willing to rescue then? (The passengers chosen in the first round are now to be considered as safe and sound.) Explicitly allow the groups to change their rules.
  • During the debriefing, check if some teams have considered new variables or even modified their priority rules. Whatever the result, enter into debate about how possible it is to change the rule during the game. Remind the participants of the very acceptable priority rule’s change between iterations. There can be many reasons to do so, such as a new opportunity or a sample of a different nature to be sorted (once the crucial persons were rescued according to the first criteria, those remaining may require another way to proceed).

III. When the rescuers speak with a single megaphone

  • porte-voixAsk all the participants to agree on the criteria required to organize the passenger list. Once they’re all aligned with each other, carry out a new iteration. This time, start from the full list as if nobody had been rescued yet. You can reduce the duration of this iteration to 7 minutes, since the participants have probably become familiar with the passenger list.
  • During the debriefing, check if everyone has got the exact same group of passengers to rescue. Is it the exact same order in all the teams? Is it normal, despite the common rule, to get various results?

IV. One for all and all for the N+1

  • mousquetairesDeal each group of players a manager card (these managers will be called Hippos here, in reference to the acronym Highest Paid Person Opinion). You will find these cards here: Life Boat – EN – Managers.
  • Everybody starts from scratch again, as if none had been rescued yet. The common rule defined in the previous round still applies, though. Carry out a 7 minutes iteration.
  • During the debriefing, check the effects of these new requests from superiors. Are the lists of rescued passengers even more various than in the previous iteration? Has a group not (fully) accepted the order received? Remind everyone of this: the point of having a clear rule for the definition of the value is not about preventing from any exception; on the contrary, it is about promoting healthier debates than just following an order (let’s prove Milgram a little bit wrong).

V. How about we add some hippos to the case? (optional)

  • hipposThis time, deal each group two Managers/Hippos. Note that some of them have quite conflicting demands. It is of interest to have a group in a situation where their two managers have radically different ideas.
  • Everybody starts from scratch again, as if none had been rescued yet. The common rule still applies. Carry out a 7 minutes iteration.
  • During the debriefing, check how the participants feel, what they would like to change so that people get more easily through that kind of situations.

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