Overcooked! Lessons on Team Orchestration and Optimization

overcookedheader22
At our office we bought a new game for our PS4: Overcooked! This is one of the best team building games I’ve ever played. It’s fun, easy to learn, and so approachable that we’re seeing people from different departments get in the game room with us from time to time. Highly recommend it!

From the game creator’s description:

Overcooked is a chaotic couch co-op cooking game for one to four players. Working as a team, you and your fellow chefs must prepare, cook and serve up a variety of tasty orders before the baying customers storm out in a huff.

The premise is simple, but execution can be chaotic and very challenging.

Lessons on Team Organization and Optimization

After playing for some number of weeks, I’ve been interested in watching how the best teams organize and deliver in the complex situations they face. And, why do some teams fall apart and stumble all over each other – failing to even get one third of their goal for a level. Having watched a number of different teams I took note of different phases they typically went through.

In total, there were 10 phases that teams would progress through, not always linearly mind you. Often times teams would progress, skip a phase or two permanently, or even regress while trying new – ultimately less successful – strategies.

The best teams, those that have typically progressed through all these phases, become so good that every new challenge is easily beaten on the first or second try. While those teams that fail often seem to be struggling somewhere in the earlier of these phases:

Phase 1: The Storm.
Phase 2: Domain Expertise.
Phase 3: Local uninformed (or “just-in-time”) decision making.
Phase 4: Global uninformed decision making.
Phase 5: Global informed decision making and orchestration.
Phase 6: Clearly defined Roles with bundled tasks for optimization.
Phase 7: Centrally-assigned fixed role ownership.
Phase 8: Decentralized role assignment and fixed role ownership.
Phase 9: Self-assigned fluid roles and rapid, repeatable knowledge sharing.
Phase 10: The Calm.

Phase 1: The Storm.

“what are we doing, how do we even do it?”

The storm is typically when a team plays for the first time or two. Everything is bewildering, chaotic, and the team members are completely unsure of how to deliver on their goal. They’re moving around, trying to figure out what they can interact with, and who is where. Failure is certain unless they can quickly move to the next phase.

Phase 2: Domain Expertise.

“i know how to chop onions!!”

At this point the individuals of the team have independently learned some function that is necessary for reaching their goal. They might not know how to do more than one thing, but they can at least contribute. Often there is confusion on how to put things together. It’s a free for all, people carrying around pots and frying pans for no reason, chopping ingredients and leaving them on the cutting boards – effectively blocking others from using the board. Usually this phase has a lot frantic yelling as people try to figure out the full steps involved to finally plating and serving a meal “MOVE THAT ONION IT’S BLOCKING ME! WHY ARE YOU CARRYING THAT AROUND? WHAT ARE YOU DOING, PUT IT ON A PLATE ALREADY!!”

Phase 3: Local uninformed (or “just-in-time”) decision making.

“i get an onion from the supply room, then chop it, then carry it over to the pot, then run back to the store room for another onion because i need another for this soup… when the soup has 3 onions and is finished cooking, I plate it and serve the customer”

Phase 3 is reached when at least one or two team members have figured out the entire process and they sprint around from station to station completing each task and deciding their own next task just-in-time based on the state of the current order they’re paying attention to. Team mates tend to bump into each other a lot during their constant sprinting around the kitchen as some are faster than others at certain tasks. The individual members are still uninformed of what others are doing, they very often duplicate work. Orders are now getting filled because there are some people shepherding things from start to finish, but the lack of clear cooperation and duplication of work frustrates the team. They now know the team needs someone playing air-traffic controller and coordinating their efforts from a more global view to end duplication.

Phase 4: Global uninformed decision making.

“why did you tell me to chop onions?? the order we need is for mushroom soup not onion soup!”

Phase 4 occurs when one member tries to orchestrate the team by calling out tasks but is calling out tasks that aren’t correct or not in the correct sequence. The leader is trying to make and communicate global decisions on what should be done but is uninformed, lagging or too far ahead of his team, and is ultimately causing deadlock, confusion, and dismay. This is often caused by the leader trying to do too much themselves (jumping in and out of stations when others aren’t fast enough for their liking, disrupting and dislocating them) or when they lose sight of the team’s actual progress in relation to their directions. At this point frustration boils and one or more other team members will start trying to orchestrate by calling the shots… the team ends up like a dysfunctional hydra or two-headed giant, too many decision makers contradicting each other, creating noise, and getting a bunch of half-prepared orders with none ever fully completed. Pots boil over, the kitchen catches on fire, and the team gives up their current work out of exasperation – they demand better leadership.

Phase 5: Global informed decision making and orchestration.

“the person that serves the hamburgers needs to get three buns ready on the plates cause we have three more coming”

Phase 5 is when the team of domain experts, masters of their function, are being orchestrated by a leader that is keenly aware of upcoming orders, their sequence, and what the team is currently working on. The leader is globally informed, decisive on how to course-correct when mistakes happen, and clear in communicating concrete actions to meet their fast paced needs. Orchestration works, and the team is now delivering with far less dysfunction as duplication is quickly noticed and called out. The team now has a head chef playing a crucial role and they begin to look for ways to define other roles and responsibilities in such a way to scale and optimize their performance.

Phase 6: Clearly defined Roles with bundled tasks for optimization.

“someone needs to wash dishes, plate food, and serve orders. Julien is calling orders based on priority and cooking prepared ingredients. and we need 2 people organizing and chopping ingredients based on orders called.”

Teams that reach phase 6 are now quick to define clear roles and responsibilities either immediately before a challenge begins or within moments from starting. The head chef / order caller is typically the first of such roles, but now other tasks are grouped together based on potential for optimizing speed and accuracy of work, and these group of task are owned by a role that team members end up filling. Various combinations are tried until the perfect mix of responsibilities is found for the goal at hand. Teams that reach this phase are usually completing each challenge but are now able to focus more on role and task optimization.

Phase 7: Centrally-assigned fixed role ownership.

“i can’t do the chopping, i’m in the wrong place and cant reach the chopping board!”

With roles defined teams often start challenges with the roles already divvied – the head chef might centrally assign what role each person should take. This works well until a role that was assigned is simply impossible based on the team member’s situation (maybe they are in a remote area that has no access to cutting boards, but their assigned role requires them to cut). Usually this leads to role re-assignment, and typically causes a little confusion and overhead when roles have to shift when people were in the middle of something. Communication overhead during handoff / handover are crucial and quite often something is lost in the transition resulting in rework.

Phase 8: Decentralized role assignment and fixed role ownership.

“who’s chopping that onion?… Who is this?? Hey, i need that — c’mon give it to me over here not over there”

Very mature teams have excellent communication skills which allows them to decentralize role assignment and be self-organizing. In this phase, team members take on whatever role is related to the station or tools closest to them and communicate their role to everyone else on the team. This self-assignment prevents the problem of being assigned a role that is impossible and encourages immediate action without the delay of a central assignment. Self-assigning requires good communication, and teams that have poor communication skills suffer when one team member is depending on some other role to be filled but doesn’t know who is actually filling that role. Adequately keeping everyone informed of who is filling what role allows self-organized direct communication between the two or more people filling roles that depend on each other. Knowing the right person to talk to affords opportunities to quickly communicate micro-optimizations specific to the way they interface with each other.

At this point teams will optimize roles and their expertise at each of them. They understand the clear boundaries between roles and responsibilities, ownership of roles is claimed and clearly communicated, and local optimizations are possible between the people interacting with each other. Every new challenge is overcome without difficulty, the team feels incredible synergy and they develop mastery level execution.

Then everything changes…

At some point Overcooked! does something incredibly genius to ratchet up the challenge, it might even be sinister at first glance. But this twist is much more interesting and shines a light on organization and optimization struggles so often faced in the real world. These challenges are especially seen in the technology industry. Things change. And they change fast!

IMG_9047

The cutting board that you started out standing next to and taking role ownership over — suddenly flies over to the other side of the kitchen and in some cases maybe you’re even physically separated by a wall without a door.

IMG_9048

You can’t fill your fixed role anymore.
Your role becomes temporarily impossible.
Everything seems to get lost between stations.
Mass confusion.

Phase 9: Self-assigned fluid roles and rapid, repeatable knowledge sharing.

“i was chopping ingredients, now my role has to change but i’m still holding a chopped onion – i have to tell the next role-owner to finish two more onions and take the one in my hand and pass it to the cook”

Teams that reach phase 9 do so in response to incredible adversity and challenges. They now have to self-assign their roles and be willing and capable of taking on new roles to meet changes – their role (career) path becomes fluid – role ownership is not fixed and changes over time. Knowledge sharing has to be rapid so new role owners can efficiently fill the role in the short time available to meet the goals. Likewise, knowledge transfers have to be easily repeatable as roles will change over and over – information must be shared openly and frequently. Team members have to develop effective filters for removing external noise and distractions (e.g., people not in the team shouting orders, onlookers asking unrelated questions) to ensure the highest level of communication and synchronization. Typically in this phase the head chef becomes overwhelmed trying to stay globally informed while facing the rapid pace of role change – some dysfunction is expected as the team attempts to optimize while in constant flux. Micro-optimizations that aren’t clearly communicated or shared are lost as new role-owners lack context behind decisions.

Phase 10: The Calm.

“I’m currently most helpful by chopping (because I have the chopping board), and chopping the remaining 2 ingredients we need for the current order. When that order’s ingredients are supplied, I’ll reassess my situation in relation to the main goal – and won’t be surprised by changes to my role or surprised by new orders, but rather anticipate them because I’m well informed of decisions and changes. I know my roles in relation to the team at all times (either via fluid self-assignment or hybrid of fluid-self+central assignment).”

Teams at this phase are at the highest levels of performance. Each team member is keenly aware of the orders, their sequence, and is fully informed about the local role’s relation to those orders. Central orchestration is helpful, but not always necessary — when the head chef is overwhelmed each member knows what is needed to fill the current orders. Teams at this phase understand that they must respect and maintain boundaries between role-ownership and not attempt to fill a role that isn’t currently theirs. This provides transparent accountability at any point in time. At the end of a challenge it’s often clear why a perfect score wasn’t obtained and who is responsible for failing to meet a role’s expectations. Execution in the midst of constant change is smooth, team members tend to act and communicate very calmly.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Security Code: