PM Articles > Geof Lory > Agile and Improv

Agile and Improv

by Geof Lory

When I first started writing articles about project management and parenthood my daughters were just entering their teens. Their childhood adventures and shenanigans provided lots of fodder for articles. Now they are older and out of the house, so I have to be more deliberate about spending quality time with them, especially if I want new material to write about.

So, Jenna and I celebrated her birthday this year by enrolling in an eight-week improvisation (improv) class. She was thrilled (remember, she's the artsy one), but I have to admit I was more than a little apprehensive, even though it was my idea. I remember watching her do improv in high school, and I wrote an article about it called "Improv Your Team." Observing and participating are two different things, but experience is the cure for ivory tower pontificating, right?

That was in February. Today, I recommend improv to all my Agile teams. Seriously! While improv can help any team, as I suggested in the previous article, the direct correlations between improv and Agile teams are particularly valuable. In fact, the organization that teaches the class we attended (Stevie Ray's Improv) also conducts corporate workshops specifically designed to take improv into the workplace to build better teams and improve working relationships.

As always, it's important to take what I learned from improv in moderation and in context. I'm not suggesting that projects should be managed by improv. However, teams can get stuck in thought patterns and processes that keep them from achieving their potential or delivering any real business value. Improv can be a way to get unstuck.

As food for thought, I offer the following ideas and practices Jenna and I learned in our improv class. I'll leave it up to you to figure out how they might relate to your team.

There Are No Rules in Improv

There is no such thing as doing improv right. Nothing is off the table. The value of improv is determined by the buyer/audience. If it entertains, it was good. Sometimes project teams look for the rules because they want to be right. A search for the rules is a search for protection. In dynamic organizations there is rarely enough time to discover or define the right way. By the time you do, it probably has changed. Don't seek the pseudo-certainty of rules; try to find clarity in the moment. You can always determine later if what you did worked or not.

Be Action-Oriented

Think less and do more. Nothing is more boring than watching two people on stage doing nothing. Short respites in the action may allow the audience to catch up, but in general it's important to get on a roll and maintain that energy. In moments of uncertainty, what you do is not as important as doing something. Each action creates a new opportunity. Inaction sucks the energy right out of the skit and the audience. When in doubt, just let go and do something.

Be Present

We use the motto "Be Here Now" on our team. In a world of constant distractions and attempted multi-tasking, we seem to have lost the collective capability to listen, watch, and concentrate with intent. This results in misunderstandings, rework, mistrust, and excessive bureaucracy to compensate. Just imagine what an improv skit would look like if one of the actors was texting or reading emails while trying to interact with his improv partner on stage. Pretty ridiculous image, but not that distant from how we behave in meetings and team interactions. Stop, listen, watch, and concentrate. You will be amazed at the value you can create and the collective effort you will save.

Say It with Conviction

One of the interesting parts of improv was recognizing that the delivery of a line or action influenced how it was received. Our teacher, Carl Olson, is an extremely animated guy with an expressive face and abundant enthusiasm. Sometimes I caught myself laughing at something he said even though it made no sense and wasn't all that funny. His enthusiasm conveyed the energy that made it entertaining. Delivery with conviction shows your belief and invites others to join in. An uninspired delivery invites suspicion and resistance. If you want others to pay attention and join in, say it with conviction.

Stay In the Moment

In improv your mindset should be, "What is the best thing I can do right now? What single thing can I do or say that will move the conversation forward and provide entertainment (audience value)?" Improv and long-range planning make for strange bedfellows. In improv, each new thought or interaction builds on the one right before it. This creates an environment of limitless possibilities. While projects can't be managed without some level of planning, too often we ruminate on the distant future and fail to deliver any value at the current moment. Unlike some business partners, improv audiences won't wait that long.

Yes And . . .

Nothing takes the energy out of improv faster than a denial. Whatever is happening in the improv skit is. Denying it propels the skit into a dead end. Denial negates all that has happened to that point and requires a restart. This shock and delay is a challenge to your audience. Redirection is great and can often capture attention and be really entertaining, but straight denial leaves you nowhere. The past is no longer valid and you have offered no alternative. On projects, I often hear the comment, "the problem is." This is a denial. I challenge you to avoid this phrase for just one day, one meeting, or even one conversation. Instead, replace it with "yes and…" You will be surprised at the change in energy and outcome.

Remove Assumptions with Context

Improv is typically done with minimal props and little stage backdrop. This blank canvas is a double-edged sword. It both allows and demands that the actors create any context that they want. The audience cannot observe, understand or enjoy unless they are provided context. Context is created through words and actions that make the who, what, and where of the scene explicit. Similarly, providing context for team efforts keeps the team on the same page and direction. Don't leave your team guessing; remove assumptions by providing context.

Go With the Give and Take

In just 16 hours together, our improv team showed more collaborative spirit than teams I have known who have worked together for years. This amazed me. No roles and responsibilities, no RACI charts, just a simple team operating agreement of give and take. The natural give and take of improv requires that you influence your teammates and allow yourself to be influenced by them. This dovetails nicely with the "yes and …" approach and creates synergy. Too often we go into meetings and interactions with a predetermined position, intent on asserting or defending it. Let go and open yourself to being influenced. Consider the possibilities.

Create a Safe Environment

Fear destroys improv. Fear begets thinking. Thinking begets protective behavior. Protective behavior is evidenced in the desire for rules. Little action occurs in your head, particularly when it is bound by rules. Our instructor was incredibly talented at creating a safe environment for us. We had people of all ages with varying dispositions, and I was amazed at how readily everyone stepped out of their comfort zone. Everyone was remarkably funny at least once, and everyone bombed at least once.

Don't Be Safe

When you have created a safe environment, you don't have to be safe. Believe it or not, some of the funniest things you do in improv are actually mistakes. Carl referred to this a "failing gloriously." On my Agile teams we call it "failing forward." To overcome the fear of vulnerability that can come with failure, you have to trust yourself and trust your teammates. Worrying about the outcome or potential failure will get you thinking again, the protective response. In most projects, we overstate the risks in the interest of being safe. I wonder just how much more would get done if we limited ourselves less by the potential consequences and didn't worry so much about being safe.

My Safe Harbor Clause

I do have one final word of caution if you choose to do improv with your child. In general, improv is clean and mostly "punny." However, from time to time the humor can get a little colorful. Improv is designed to reduce the amount of thinking and err on the side of action. We weren't quite prepared for the effect of Jenna seeing me without my usual social filter governing my words and actions. It was a part of me she hadn't really seen before. We certainly broadened our understanding of each other, which wasn't a bad thing, just a little embarrassing at the time.

I guess Dad is not quite the prudish old man Jenna thought he was. Now I'm going to have to re-explain that story about storks and babies. Come to think of it, maybe I am the naïve one. Go figure.




Comments
Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Inspiring and interesting...you really are a super dad! thank you for sharing!


Great article Geof! I miss working with you - hope your are doing well.


Interesting article Geof. A number of great points!


Thanks for the kind words, Geof. It was a pleasure to have you in class and to see you fail so gloriously. I laughed numerous times.


Geof - Great article and a terrific synthesis of key points to keep in mind when coordinating any project. Thanks.


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