There’s no script for agile – what can we learn from Improv theatre?

It’s always good to hear a new perspective on a seemingly familiar subject, it often provokes thought, inspires action, and encourages change.  Paul Goddard has introduced one such perspective on coaching teams in his book ‘Improving Agile Teams’.  There are plenty of books with similar titles, but the clue here is ‘Improv’ – the book shows readers how improv theatre techniques and games are of benefit to agile teams, both aspiring and experienced.  

I’m confident improv needs no introduction, the likes of Paul Merton, Josie Laurence and more recently, The Mighty Boosch have brought the art to the mainstream. Something you quickly realise reading the book is just how spontaneous improvisers are.  There are subtle cues, and openings the players use to both support, promote, and challenge each other.  Take a look at the expressions on the faces of Ryan Stiles and Jeff B Davis in the first minutes of this Improv-a-ganza clip, you’ll see reactions to unexpected events, and rapid adaptation to changing circumstances.

The idea of using improv techniques to improve team collaboration is an appealing one, the principles of agile and improv seem closely aligned, success in entertaining an audience and working effectively on complex, creative projects requires trust, collaboration, respect and a sense of play.

The book draws out five principles;
Safety – concerned with creating an environment in which teams (players in improv speak) can trust and rely on each other, supporting, encouraging, accepting failure and learning together.
Spontaneity – the business of developing an open mind, to increase creativity and receptiveness to others ideas.
Storytelling – as a method of engaging, inspiring and developing empathy, not just applicable to conversation, but also in user stories.
Status – identifying status, and manipulating it in a safe way to identify issues and further creativity and collaboration.
Sensitivity – the ability to sense, or listen and respond appropriately to others, in order to work effectively with them.

These are novel choices for what must, by extension, be agile principles, but the book explains the thinking behind these, and grounds them in current theory. For instance, in safety pointing out that absence of trust is one of the five dysfunctions of a team .  It’s nice to see Mihaly’s flow model get a mention too.

What I really like is that these principles are used to introduce a improv games and tips designed to further the maturity of teams.  These range from simple, everyday exercises that most teams would be comfortable with, to techniques that may challenge both team and coach.  It’s interesting to run through the techniques, and think “Could I run this with my team?”  if the response is ‘no’ then it’s likely attention to one of the five principles is warranted.

There are fifty or so techniques in the book, some quick and simple and great for livening up stale meetings (like conducting a stand up without using the letter ‘S’) while others require more time, and set to explore a particular area with a team.

One technique is ‘The physic Stand Up’, when team members aim to give someone else’s daily report.  I’ve seen this in action, and it’s fascinating, especially when vociferous people give reports on behalf of more timid people, there’s a strange mix of relief (that’s what I’ve been wanting to say) and shock (did they really just say that?).

I found the status techniques are particularly interesting, especially as it’s an area less explored by agile.  The Dinner Party game is aimed at understanding and recognising status, and the responses it elicits.  In brief, players are invited to an imaginary dinner party, split into two groups and asked to show either high or low status behaviors.  The groups then switch for the same amount of time before retrospecting on the experience.  

Sounds simple?  I’d suggest reserving judgement until you’ve tried some of the techniques, either in a safe environment or on the ‘stage’ of the shop floor.  There are great benefits to be found, experimenting with improv is both challenging and thrilling, the learning is definitely in the doing.

P.S.
In a similar vein, I’d highly recommend the book Artful Making, an unlikely collaboration been a Harvard Professor and a director/playwright.  It draws agile and leadership lessons from the world of makers, particularly experiences running a busy theatre and working with groups of actors.

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2 thoughts on “There’s no script for agile – what can we learn from Improv theatre?

  1. Pingback: What do points mean? | Erratic Mumblings

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