Improv-ing Agile Teams

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Authors Sebastian Castineiras & Gustavo Facci
 April 13, 2021

The rules of improvisation apply beautifully to life. Never say no – you have to be interested to be interesting, and your job is to support your partners. — Scott Adsit

Theat rical improvisation has its origins in the Art of Comedy and got systematized as a technique after experimentation from several performers.
In this technique, the improvisator has a triple role: actor, director and playwright, and it’s based on three main rules : acceptance (to say “yes”), adaptation and active listening.

Opposite to classic theatre plays, movies, television shows, and other script based performance, Impro needs to be Trained and not Rehearsed.
Impro provides tools, which get effective and aids the performers to reach their goals, but there is no plan on how and when those tools are going to be used, there is when Training becomes a must.
Even if improv is based on adaptation and reaction of unplanned situations, the plays follow a basic structure under which situations develop :   Presentation -> Problem -> Solution -> Ending. 

So, you might be reading this and wondering “How does this match with Agile and can it help me somehow in my day to day work?”. The answer is yes, and we will see how.

 

Improv applied to Agile and to day to day work

First of all, let’s not confuse Impro with improvising (and it’s negative connotation). It is not being unprepared and doing things on the fly without a plan, it is having a set of techniques and tools and being ready to adapt based on the situation.

Which are those tools we have been mentioning? Let’s check them out :

Acceptance (“yes, and…”)

In order for a play to work, in Improv acceptance is the key ;  Someone proposes something to another person, if there is no acceptance on the answer the story is over and they need to restart the scene.

The same happens i.e.  While facilitating a meeting or being part of a brainstorming we need to have the “yes” as a first answer, do not stop the synergy. If we don’t fully agree with the proposal we can say “yes, and…” or “yes, but if..”. Starting with a yes instead of a no, also improves the reception of our contra proposal, it avoids a negative initial setup of a discussion.

 

Adaptation

Having the capability to adapt during a improvi play allows the story to move forward and solve “the problem” and get to the final objective. I.e. if a character claims that he is the son of another, but he gets the answer that it is not correct, he is his brother, that character will need to adapt and act as his brother now rethinking his strategy and what he was thinking he was to say or do.

To bring it to our work realm, let’s say we are the facilitators of a ceremony and we get into the ceremony (i.e. Retrospective) with a plan and an idea to follow, but the group or the situation leads the ceremony in a completely different path (i.e. the team decides they need to deep dive in the amount of defects found and how to get better at that, when the original objective of the facilitator was to generate more engagement inside the team). The facilitator needs to embrace that change and be flexible enough to do a quick change in his directions in order to help the team to move forward and solve the problem.

 

Active listening

We’ve read or heard about this a lot of times. In this case what we can “copy” from the improv world is to be actively not only listening but to everything, gestures, tones of voice, movements, mood.

Bringing back the example of the Retrospective, for a facilitator this is a key ability to also be able to adapt to the situation and the conversations being held. There can be “red flags” on how the meeting is going that might warn the Facilitator and the team that they need to stop talking about something, talk more about it, or even stop talking and have a break.

 

Protagonist as an ally

A protagonist in Improv is the one to whom things happen, the one that pushes forward the action of the play. It needs to be identified, it needs to be challenged and have “problems” generated for him to solve.

Translate that to team work and we will see that there is always someone or something that is driving the action, that has a problem to solve. It is needed to identify that person or thing in order to be able to help and improve.

 

Status

In every interaction between two persons there is always someone with a higher “status quo” than the other one. That one is the one that drives the situation, the other one accepts. The one with lower status quo can influence the interaction but cannot be the one driving the action.
On Improv the idea is that status keeps changing constantly, so there is no complete dominance on a role over the other.

Let’s take for example a very common scenario for us :  pair programming. If it’s done among two different seniority devs, the one with higher seniority will have a higher status quo during the activity and will drive it. But, that doesn’t mean that the dev with lower seniority cannot switch and be the one with higher status quo, it’s recommended that this happens. That way they will both learn, they will aim for different approaches and gain more benedict of that practice.

 

Do it! Don’t announce it

If someone announces that they are going to do something it will take double the time than actually doing it. Action is more valuable than words in Improv.

Same goes for our work, instead of saying that “as a team we should do x thing” or if someone claims “ok, I will do this to improve our work”, just do it !.  Avoiding Potential verb-phrases is a starting point to stop procrastinating and just go ahead and do something, it will also always take less time.

 

Conclusion

We saw different techniques that are used in the Improv world, those techniques are part of a tool-set. It is not a defined process nor a structured way to do things, you have the tools you have to use them as situations happen. 

Agile frameworks work the same way, even some of these techniques and principles sound very similar to Agile definitions and their manifestos. So, why not try them out? Art had been dealing with human behavior many many years before the first software was developed. How to improve our work, deal with different situations, work as a team, and reach our goals is driven mainly by human interactions, software problems are easier to solve than people problems, and for that we need a tool-set as complete as we can have. In this case it is taken from the Improv technique. Be curious, expand your horizons and search for better practices everywhere.

 

References and other information

Some extra material to check and keep learning about the Improv world and its influence in Agile and software in general: