Playing the Chaos Lottery

A 45 minute Case Study by:

Helen Lisowski


About this Case Study

A system's resilience is tested by stressing it under controlled conditions to find where it will fracture first. Finding where a system is weak - before an emergency happens - allows us to prepare and mitigate better. This is true of any system, including an agile team.

We know teams with good habits such as TDD, SOLID principles, pair working, DoD, low WIP limits etc are successful. Intellectually, teams know these practices are a good idea - but the human brain is a tricky thing, and habits are hard to change.

A great team does these things because they're used to it: it's just what they do, every time.

A good team usually does these things, but there are often reasons why they don't. It's not habitual.

Showing a good team where they need to improve can be difficult. They may even be in denial that any improvement is needed.

We know people learn best when can they fail without fear - enter the Chaos Lottery.

One person in the team wins the Chaos Lottery! For a set time they withdraw from contact with their team, immediately and with no handover...

  • if the team practise pair working, they know where the work is up to. Finishing off without the lottery winner is no problem.
  • if the team check code in often, there is no big chunk of inaccessible work. All but the very last bit is checked in.
  • if developers and testers work closely, and the tester was the Chaos Lottery ticket winner, the rest of the team know how to continue without them.

Inspired by NASA astronaut training for solving complex, evolving problems on the fly, the Chaos Lottery is one approach to testing an agile team's resilience.

This is a meta-story about knowing what you should do (test your team's resilience), designing a mechanism to do that (the Chaos Lottery), and finding that when our emergency situation happened, we still weren't quite prepared - because action is a critical part of risk mitigation!

About the Speaker

Helen Lisowski trains and mentors talented people in the software development industry.

Using psychology and behavioural science she helps people to build great habits and work to their optimum potential. She has been involved in agile for well over a decade, working with startups, international corporations and everything in between.

While at NewVoiceMedia, Helen built a team of 10 scrum masters and helped transform the agile process from yearly to weekly releases. She's been speaking, running workshops and writing for many years now (she blogs at

Helen claims her life is filled with variations on the same question: 'Why do we humans do what we do?' She also has a bit of an obsession with afternoon tea.


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