Sunday, January 29, 2012

Multitasking game - Hands/Numbers/Song

Most of us find ourselves multitasking at some point and are possibly even proud of our multitasking skills. Here is one game that was created by Alan Cyment with collaboration from Tobias Mayer and introduced to me by Gerry Kirk and Yves Hanoulle at SDEC11 that allows you to simulate the costs of task switching. I've since used it elsewhere and the results were quite effective for shaking the multi-tasking misconceptions.

(Note: Alan added a comment to this blog and I've incorporated some of his new ideas and changes - thanks Alan!)

The Game

Materials needed

  • 6-20 people (note - if you have more than this, just split into multiple groups. In theory you can handle as many people as you have space for)
  • One facilitator
  • One stop watch
  • White board / Easel or equivalent to record a few scores.

Suggested questions to ask before the game

  • Who values multitasking?
  • How many projects are you working on right now?
  • Can we juggle tasks well?
  • Who is great at multitasking?

Practice / Warm-up

  1. Have each person pair up and then line up in two lines facing each other like this:
  2. A1 A2 A3 A4 A5 (A1 faces B1, A2 faces B2, etc)
    B1 B2 B3 B4 B5
    • If you have an uneven number, you can ask one person to be your time keeper. If you have some sceptics or others who don’t want to participate, you can ask them to be observers ;). However, you need at least 3 pairs and more is better.
  3. Have each pair practice the Hands activity as below
  4. Now switch pairs by having everyone in line A move one spot. A5 will have to move all the way to A1. Your line should now look like this:
  5.   A5 A1 A2 A3 A4 (A5 is paired with B1, etc) 
      B1 B2 B3 B4 B5 
  6. Have each new pair practice the Numbers activity below
  7. Now switch pairs again by having everyone in line A move one spot. You should now look like this:
  8.   A4 A5 A1 A2 A3
      B1 B2 B3 B4 B5 
  9. Have each new pair practice the Song activity below

Performing the game

  1. This game will be performed in two rounds
  2. Round One:
    • You as the project manager will tell the teams which activity (project) to work on.
    • You will bark out instructions ("Shout-Driven Develolpment") and they are expected to switch tasks on your command. For each activity they need to switch to perform the activity with the pair they practiced that activity with. (This will involve a lot of movement.)
    • When each pair resumes an activity that they have already started they must pick up where they previously left off.
    • Your time keeper should record the time when the whole team (all pairs) have finished each activity.
    • Keep asking the team to task switch every 2-10 seconds (be random!) until all pairs have completed the activities.
    • Record the completed time for each activity.
  3. Round Two:
    • You as the project manager will tell them the priority of the activities (projects). You will ask them to complete Hands first, Numbers second, and Song third. You ask them to complete each activity (project) before starting the next.
    • Your time keeper should record the time when the whole team (all pairs) have finished each activity.
    • Record the completed time for each activity
  4. Your results should look similar to the results in the image below. Note: we played this game twice after adding more people - the purple numbers are the results of the second game.

Additional Tips and or Alterations

Alan Cyment commented on this blog (see below) with some alterations and changes that he is using. Take a look at some of these additional tips and ideas:
  • Have the group decide how to rotate partners instead of defining the rotation for them.
  • Run the sequential round first and then the multitasking round.
  • Have the group choose their own song instead of Happy Birthday.
  • For larger groups, ask them to put their hands up when they complete each 'project'. This will help the time keeper to understand when each project is completed amidst the chaos.
  • Instead of acting as the project manager, act as the product owner who represents three different customers/stakeholders.


  • What did you think of the game? 
  • What are some conclusions you can draw about how you are currently working? 
  • Notice that in the second attempt you completed all three tasks before you completed the first one in the multi-tasking round. What do you think about that? 
  • For the two rounds, notice your time to market.
  • How different was the quality of your product in round one and two?
  • What did you notice about your stress level in round one and two?
  • What does this game teach us about sustainable pace?
  • Describe your discipline level in each round. How much did your team cheat or ignore the manager's orders?
  • How does that affect how you will work? 
  • What happens when you task switch? 
  • What are the costs to juggling tasks? 
  • How can we change the way we work to take advantage of this? 
  • What are the barriers to making this happen? 
  • How can you respond to someone who is asking you to switch to another task or to split yourself between two or more projects?

The Activities:


  • Clap your own hands / Clap your both of your partner’s hands 
  • Clap your own hands / Clap your partner’s right hand 
  • Clap your own hands / Clap your partner’s left hand 
  • Clap your own hands / Clap your right hand to your left foot 
  • Clap your own hands / Clap your left hand to your right foot 
  • Repeat once


  • First person holds up 1 finger / second person claps once 
  • First person holds up 2 fingers / second person claps twice (up to five) 
  • Then switch roles and repeat once


Sing/say the Happy Birthday song alternating each word. One person says the first word, your partner says the second, you say the third, etc:
  • Happy birthday to you 
  • Happy birthday to you 
  • Happy birthday dear <name> 
  • Happy birthday to you 
  • Repeat once

Additional Resources:


From QSM 1, Systems Thinking (Dorset House, 1992). Jerry Weinberg:
  • # of tasks = 1 - Time spent on task = 100% 
  • # of tasks = 2 - Time spent on task = 40% 
  • # of tasks = 3 - Time spent on task = 20% 
  • # of tasks = 4 - Time spent on task = 10% 
  • # of tasks = 5 - Time spent on task = 5% 
  • # of tasks = more than 5 - Time spent on task = random.

Links on Multi-tasking

Links on combatting multi-tasking

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  1. Credit for this game, for co-development and improvement through usage, really goes to Alan Cyment. I admit I have never used this in practice, but have observed Alan do so with great effect. For a simpler multi-tasking/context-switching game, i.e. on that is much easier to set up and quick to implement (although probably not as fun as this one) see

    1. Thanks Tobias - I've modified the credit in the post.

    2. Dear Steve. Thanks for transcribing this wonderful game. I participated in Alan's ScrumMaster training program and I loved it. Just found your site because I when looking for this exercise to replicate it. I also got curious about the shorter exercise mentioned by Tobias, but the link is broken...

    3. Dear Steve, thanks for transcribing this fun and useful exercise. I participated in one of Alan's ScrumMaster workshops in June and got hooked with this exercise! Also, I'm curious about the shorter version mentioned by Tobias, but it seems the link is broken...

    4. Hi Nacho,

      I did some searching but couldn't find a new link to the shorter game either. Sorry.


  2. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for writing this description. Here's a couple of comments on the way I usually run it:
    - I only ask people to change partner for each "product," but let the group decide on how to rotate
    - I find it more interesting to run the sequential round first and then the multitasking one. Results are less obvious and still interesting.
    - When debriefing it's powerful to ask people to compare not just total times, but also time to market, quality of the product, sustainable pace/stress and discipline (in the multitasking round many groups cheat-ignore the manager's orders)
    - I usually ask groups to choose their own song. They usually come with a richer alternative to Happy Birthday.
    - In order to facilitate the job of the facilitator you can ask people to raise their hands when they have finished a given "product." This makes it way easier to realize when the product has been finished by all couples, which would make it possible for the group to jump to the next project.
    - I find it more realistic to refer to the facilitator as the Product Owner, who represents 3 differents customers/stakeholders. I sometimes describe the multitasking scenario as "shout-driven development"
    - BTW I once ran it with over 80 people and it worked wonders


    1. Thanks Alan! I had already discovered the 'hands up' tweak when I ran the game with about 40 people in the spring. Your other ideas are excellent and I'll add them in to the text above. I particularly liked "Shout-Driven Development")

  3. As a facilitator, how much time to you plan to do this exercise?

    1. I allow 30-40 minutes for the explanation and exercise. The Q&A time is up to you and your group but I'd reserve a minimum of 20 minutes.

  4. Hi Winnipeg /Alan,

    This seems a good activity and I want to use it for the group of 30 people. However could you please elaborate the learning points in detail. Also please help how as a trainer I could explain the learning points to the group.

    Please help at the earliest.

    Purvi Raval