“Improv-ing Your Scrum Team” was the title of the webinar given by Paul Goddard, a CST and Coach from the UK with a background in improvisational theatre. He has written and coached extensively on the use of improvisation to help Scrum teams develop. Because of my own experience in teaching and creating theatre, I was eager to see how Mr. Goddard used improv to improve Scrum teams.
For clarity’s sake, we can describe improvisation, in theatrical milieus, as the act of making things up as you go along. Improvisers are normally people who know their discipline very well, and are able to allow their creativity to take them into new places, new expressions, in their art.
The improv themes Goddard covered that can be used with Scrum teams were: creating safety, being spontaneous, telling stories, changing status and increasing sensitivity.
He likened these themes to the Agile Manifesto which proclaims: “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools,” and “Responding to change over following a plan.” He also related improv to Agile principles of “welcoming change,” “face to face is the best way to convey information,” and “the best designs emerge from self-organizing teams.”
In an interesting aside, he also compared myths of Agile to myths about Improv, for example, that Agile is only about creating software, and Improv is only about comedy. Another myth is that Agile and Improv are about unstructured chaos, whereas both prescribe being disciplined within a framework. Goddard described the Scrum framework as “a lightweight structure that uses constraints to unlock creativity;” improv also provides such a structure.
Improv starts with “creating safety.” Since it is impossible to improvise alone, we must learn to trust others. This involves agile team behaving as a family who rescue each other if necessary. There are no mistakes in improv; team members work for each other. When we try too hard in improv to get it right, it becomes a struggle to feel safe. Ultimately, we should be able to feel safe whether we win or lose, and definitely we feel safe when we PLAY.
The second theme is “being spontaneous.” Spontaneity is the ability to act on impulse as soon as an idea occurs. This is the bread and butter of creativity. We are less spontaneous when we filter or edit our ideas before trying them out. We usually do this filtering because we fear our ideas being deemed crazy, or obscene, or unoriginal. Good improvisers increase their spontaneity by giving and receiving offers from team members. Offers are the currency of improv: you go with an idea, build on it, and keep a scene going. Bad improvisers put up blocks, that is, they reject ideas, and a scene goes nowhere.
Goddard tells us that the power of storytelling lies in the fact that many parts of the brain get activated: empathy is increased, oxytocin hormone and cortisol is released when we feel empathy for a character, and so on. Conversely, the brain switches off ideas or stories that are cliches – things we’ve heard too many times before and are inured to. The beauty about stories is that they make dry data more human and therefore interesting.
Status always exists, especially in business environments. Some jobs or roles imply having a higher status, i.e. Scrum Master. If physical power poses adjust the hormones in our bodies, as Goddard claims, then the opposite is also true. In improv, playing high or low status and then changing it becomes a dynamic and creative game. It assists in collaboration. Low status players in improv tend to accept offers from their fellows; high status tend to refuse offers, unless they can control them. Scrum teams can learn to play with status to collaborate more effectively.
Great improvisers develop certain qualities: selflessness (they want to make others look good), listening, observation, recollection/ memory, and emotional awareness (ability to pick up on cues). They are able to be “fully in the moment.” Goddard describes this as “thinking inside the box,” i.e. with safety established, the ideas are already there.
Back to Scrum
Just as in an improv team, a Scrum team’s firmest foundation is trust. How can one introduce improv and its beneficial themes to a Scrum team? Start with the idea of a game. It’s not about performing. It’s simply about having fun together, getting to know each other, learning common values, shaking off the dust of work-related responsibilities and allowing time for play. If you’re working with introverted types, allow that person to opt out. Make sure no one is judged. It’s important to be able to joke and feel like a family. Even a non co-located team can play word games over the telephone.
I look forward to trying out some improv with my own team, and, hopefully, in the future with others.
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