Product Development as a Game of Multiplayer Tetris.

Tetris is often leveraged as a metaphor for life. I think it can also tell us something about product development.

Alex Cornell
Jun 16, 2016 · 3 min read

The original Tetris was a single player game. Product development is a multiplayer endeavor. Imagine what it would be like to play Tetris with many people accessing the controller simultaneously.

It’s easy and slow at first. Blocks fall at gentle pace; there is plenty of time to plan and assess where they should land. Consensus is easy because there is nothing at stake. Every block, regardless of shape, fits in somewhere. Lines clear.

As the game progresses it gets harder and faster. It becomes difficult to agree on where blocks should land and which path they should travel. Even a slight misplacement can cause a structural weakness that will take many moves to rectify. Small mistakes compound.

A perfect block, at the wrong time, can cause all sorts of problems. An awkward block, at the right time, can clear multiple lines. All that’s certain is that new blocks are inevitable.

Teams are created to specialize in certain aspects of board management. Some focus on block placement, others on block type. Still others on block prediction.

Only one future block is known for sure. A preview window displays the impending variable, but its genesis is obscure to the players. The block type is random but familiar. Theories are written about what might follow. Plans are made.

The game is complicated by the fact that not everyone touching the controller can see the monitor. This makes communication extremely important. Everyone must use the same language to describe the gameplay as it unfolds. Everyone must share the same vision for the board’s future.

Other teams start to play as well on their own boards. They move fast because the game is easy in the beginning. They use different blocks but they’ve learned effective methods of communication, planning, and execution. They clear their lines quickly. Players are traded.

Within each game there is another game. The board is either a product, at the macro level, or a feature, at the micro level. The dynamics are the same at any scale.

The best teams evolve along with the pace of the game. Things speed up, but their systems are designed to accommodate. They’ve cleared so many lines that their board has been reinvented many times. They are ruthlessly efficient.

Each player’s responsibility is clear and they know when and how to access the controller. They are many, but they play as one.

For context, I’ve been thinking about this metaphor a lot during recent candidate interviews . It’s very interesting to see how they approach the metaphor and where they see themselves in it. It’s not a perfect metaphor by any means, but it can be an interesting jumping off point for discussion.

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