Playing the Chaos Lottery

4-6 October 2017

John McIntyre Conference Centre, Edinburgh

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 see 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 (eg TDD, solid principles, pair working, low WIP limits) are successful. Intellectually, teams know these habits are a good idea - but the human brain is a tricky thing, and habits are hard to change.

A great team does these things out of habit. It's just what they do. Every time.

A good team USUALLY does these things, but....there are often reasons they don't. It's not a habit.

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

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

How does it work? 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, and then:

  • if the team practises pair working, people know where the work is up to and finishing off without the lottery winner is no problem
  • if the team checks in code often, there's 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 knows 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 teams' resilience) and designing a mechanism to do it (the Chaos Lottery). We found that when our 'emergency situation' happened, we still weren't quite prepared, since 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 organisations from international corporations to start-ups, and everything in between.

Whilst 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 You can find her on Twitter at @helenlisowski and on LinkedIn.

Helen claims her life's filled with variations on the same theme: why we humans do what we do. She also has a bit of an obsession with afternoon tea.


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