Pair Problem Solving – Sudoku!

In a training course I recently delivered, I tried a new simulation exercise. Using the game Sudoku, I divided the class into two groups: a group that would solve the game in pairs, and a group that would solve the game solo. My hope was that I would be able to demonstrate some interesting aspects of working in an agile team, particularly around communication and problem solving.

The setup for the simulation exercise was fairly simple: print out the same Sudoku puzzle multiple times, give the group basic instructions about how to do the puzzle, divide the room (1/3 are solo, the other 2/3 pair up), hand them out flipped upside down, make sure people had pencils, and then let people work on the puzzles for ten minutes.

After ten minutes, everyone put down their pencils and we listed out how many spaces had been filled in for each solo/pair. Since some people did not know how to do the puzzle, there was a large variation in the actual times.

The interesting part came with the discussion.

One important observation was that a person who was experienced at solving Sudoku puzzles felt hindered by having to work with someone who wasn’t experienced. It was difficult for the experienced person to take the time and explain every time why he was putting a number in a particular spot.

Someone else mentioned that she felt time-pressure and did not enjoy that.

These two observations together led to a good discussion about how agile methods timebox everything and therefore there is always time pressure. However, scope pressure is meant to be relieved somewhat so there should be time to help bring junior / new team members up to speed. The frustration we feel when trying to work with someone who doesn’t know how to do the work is often because we feel time pressure – we are impatient. Agile methods use timeboxing as a counter-intuitive way of relieving the time pressure.

There was also some discussion about how problem-solving for Sudoku may be easier in pairs because it is easier to search the overall solution space. Some of the pairs tried putting numbers in randomly and then seeing if the placements resulted in inconsistancies. Although no one solved the puzzle in the ten minutes given, there was a feeling by the pairs that their approach may have been able to solve the puzzle fairly quickly. This is something to explore further!

One person working solo said that she had felt frustrated because she did not understand the puzzle. That immediately led to a pair piping up and saying that even though both of them had never done Sudoku before, they felt mutual support and therefore it was fun rather than frustrating.

The next time I try this, I would like to try solo, pair and trio work. I would also like to give better instructions: that the puzzle should be solved purely using logic, no guessing, that the puzzle has exactly one correct solution (and making sure I have it available for comparison). I would also like to give the class fifteen minutes instead of ten minutes to work on it. I will start collecting times to see if there are any statistically significant relationships between group size and number of cells correctly filled in.

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