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Playing the BDD Game

Jonah introduced the idea that BDD, like Agile, is a cooperative game. Let’s dig in to some of the practical implications of this as we think about exploring examples. The book Gamestorming presents the idea that every game has a common shape. This shape has three different stages, and each stage has a different purpose. This shape looks like that shown in Figure 2-3.


Figure 2.3 Game Design

In a game, a team wants to get from their known point A to fuzzy goal B, but they don’t know how. So they apply this game framework to get there. We believe BDD includes this kind of game, with the same structure and accompanying mindsets. BDD is so much more than just this collaborative game, but this aspect of BDD is typically the hardest part for most teams to understand and master. Let’s look at the three stages of the game structure.


The opening phase of the game is all about opening people’s minds, opening up possibilities and ideas for later exploration. The opening is divergent, as illustrated in Figure 2-4. Generating new ideas is maximized and all critique is deliberately set aside. It’s about getting as many ideas out in the open as possible and avoiding critical thinking and skepticism.


Figure 2-4 Opening (Divergent)

The opening stage in BDD involves brainstorming examples that help the team understand the business domain. These examples are focused on the customer experience and are as close as possible to the reality of the business domain. The goal is to generate a variety of examples that help the team understand the business domain and the customer need they are trying to address. Some teams split into pairs or triads to maximize the diversity of perspectives and ideas. This stage may take only a few minutes or much longer, depending on the complexity of the domain being considered.


The keyword for the exploring stage is emergent. Exploration and experimentation are the focus. You want to create the conditions where “unexpected, surprising, and delightful things” emerge.7 Figure 2-5 illustrates the nonlinear, emergent nature of the exploring stage.


Figure 2-5 Exploring (Emergent)

In BDD, this stage builds on the energy and ideas that flowed into the room during the previous divergent stage, exploring the examples generated to see patterns and missing concepts and scenarios. If the team split into subgroups, this is when the subgroups each take turns presenting their findings to the rest of the team, then the team looks for patterns, misunderstandings, missing concepts, and themes in the examples.

The exploring stage can feel chaotic, directionless, and confusing to those not used to it. Thus, this stage can be very uncomfortable for teams that aren’t used to exploring in this way. One facilitation book, the Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making, even refers to the exploring stage as “The Groan Zone,” because the creative tension necessary for this stage takes effort to maintain and is discomforting for those not used to it.

Because of this tension, in the exploration stage of the game the temptation to critique options and converge on solutions as soon as possible can be very strong. If this happens, it can mean an early death to creativity, but this “groan zone” is a vital, normal, and necessary part of the creative process. Sam is used to formalizing proposed solutions early, which makes the exploration stage a big part of why he felt so uncomfortable playing the BDD game.

The right thing to do in exploration is to keep the creative tension and suspend judgment as long as necessary. This enables a team to pursue full participation, mutual understanding, inclusive solutions, and shared responsibility. We saw Jonah do this with the team, supporting and encouraging active dialogue about the various scenarios while not being afraid to dig a little deeper when necessary.

As we saw with the team, being very concrete is critical at this stage: who the user is in terms of background and experience, what they’re trying to accomplish, what struggles they might have in getting their need met, where they are, and so on. All these kinds of details might seem quite incidental and unimportant, but they are vital in helping everyone visualize each scenario and identify what’s missing, which then helps the team see other scenarios.

The focus in the exploration stage is on integrating the various ideas and perspectives rather than critiquing them. This is where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The team may analyze certain examples and discard them, or at least postpone further discussion on them. They may discover other examples that illuminate the domain more, and thus are pursued further. The team talks together about each example to make sure they understand it, filling in missing pieces and making note of things requiring further investigation.


The closing stage is where a game converges on conclusions, decisions, and action. It’s finally the time to bring in critical thinking and rigor, evaluating which ideas are the most promising to pursue and worth an investment of time and energy. The keyword for this stage is convergent, as illustrated in Figure 2-6. It’s about narrowing the field “in order to select the most promising things for whatever comes next.”


Figure 2-6 Closing (Convergent)

For the BDD “game,” this means converging on a decision about which examples to carry through the rest of the BDD process. It involves starting to formalize the scenarios, looking for which details are significant and which are incidental. This leads us naturally to returning to our team in Chapter 3.

As we stated earlier, playing the BDD game is fundamentally about intentional discovery and growing a shared understanding. The overall BDD game structure looks like that shown in Figure 2-7, with divergent, emergent, and convergent stages.


Figure 2-7 BDD game structure

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