In both improv and agile, there is a tight-knit community where everyone can explore possibilities and feel free to innovate. Without that community, there can be no trust or collaboration. Travis Klinker tells you how success in both improv and agile means exemplifying transparency, adaptability, and unity.
“Do you improv?” That’s the question I use when event coordinators request that I add something personal to my name tag to help “break the ice.” The question gets curious looks and a few remarks, but it sparks a good conversation because there are strong correlations between the values of improv—that is, improvisational theater, where the performance is created on the spot—and agile.
I have found that the best improv performers and agile practitioners do not consider themselves experts. They are constantly learning and surrounding themselves with other people who are good at what they do. This is where the power of community begins.
In improv, the community consists of the players and audience. In agile, the community consists of the team—including the product owner and ScrumMaster—customers, and sponsors. All members of each community foster a safe place of give and take where everyone can explore possibilities and feel free to innovate; consequently, community plays a pivotal role in the success of both improv and agile.
Agile and improv share three key values that enable and benefit from community: transparency, adaptability, and unity.
With improv, what you see is what you get. There is no script and no hiding. The audience sees and hears what is emerging at the same time as the players. It is 100 percent transparent.
At the start of each show, a community forms between the players and audience and the direction of the show is guided by the real-time ideas of the community. Transparency occurs in the form of players’ actions and audience reactions.
Let’s review these aspects by layering agile in the improv concept. Transparency by improv players (team) improves quality of the show (product), but community transparency ensures a great performance (business value). Players performing without an audience is practice. An agile team delivering without community is a guess; a value-added agile delivery requires community.
Story: A team was developing product enhancements via product owner specifications while conducting team-only demos. The team felt confident in their product, but without customer involvement and feedback, it was purely speculative.
I asked them to define their community and hold open demos. The team was reluctant because their product enhancements were not complete, but they agreed to do so. The participants were pleased, but they questioned some new features (deemed unnecessary) and they surfaced higher-value items than what the team was currently focused on.
By regularly including and being transparent with your community, you can obtain valuable feedback that will help you minimize wasted work, validate priorities, and ensure you don’t deliver an inadequate product.
Through consistent transparency, improv players adapt and adjust the show based on feedback from the audience. Players elevate the scene when the audience is engaged and make adjustments when the audience isn’t captivated. Similarly, the audience adapts to the players by changing or heightening their reactions. The continuous interaction between players and audience fuels an entertaining show.
Adaptability is a highly regarded agile value, but without community, the value is incomplete. Without community, teams build solutions based only on their team discussions, which is not enough; customers start dictating delivery solutions, which is inappropriate. Why is this a concern? Let’s look at an example.
Story: A delivery team’s customer informed them that they were about to contract a third-party vendor to replace an in-house application and they expected the delivery team to manage the implementation. The estimated contract cost was just under a million dollars, and at no time did the customer consult the delivery team. Astonished by the decision, the delivery team quickly conducted interviews (sidestepping the leaders) to understand the concerns and started developing mock-up solutions. Prior to signing the vendor contract, the delivery team shared their findings and proposed an alternative solution at a fraction of the cost. The customer agreed to the proposal, saving the company more than half a million dollars.
Adaptability is a two-way street where the community works together.
In improv, the magic happens through a recursive cycle where players evaluate and adapt to the audience, the audience adapts to player changes, and the process repeats. In agile, this same recursive cycle occurs when the team, customer, and sponsor build a shared understanding and embrace the concept of inspecting and adapting. An adaptable community drives consistent value through the delivery of the right product at the right time.
The true power of community occurs when the community has unity. Without unity, transparency and adaptability are hard to achieve and sustain.
Unity in improv begins with a self-forming group of people (a troupe). The troupe builds unity through continued play, practice, collaboration, communication, and adherence to two improv rules: make others look good (don’t be selfish), and embrace saying “Yes, and” (don’t deny a player’s contribution). A troupe with unity builds a foundation of trust with the audience, which becomes a unified community.
High-performing agile teams demonstrate the same qualities, which manifest themselves in the community. They trust one another, they enjoy working with each other, and they all contribute to and share in the team’s success. A team without unity is a set of individuals delivering far below their potential. But be patient, because it takes time to build unity.
Let’s review two different examples of how unity—and a lack thereof—can impact a team.
Story: A team had the skills they needed to develop and support their product, but the skills were disbursed across the team; each person had a unique skill. One person would code their part and then hand it off to the next person, who would code their part, and so forth, working in silos. If a defect was identified, it was brought to the first person whether it was related to their code or not.
One day, the team experienced a production issue while one person was out sick. Without talking to one another, each person started investigating their own theory for resolving the issue. Eventually, they came together and discovered the fix required the sick person’s skills.
To improve unity, another agile coach proposed mob programming. We asked the team to mob on a story, and in two days, the team had laid the foundation for unity. They started bonding, teaching, and learning new skills, improving code quality and rallying on blockers. To date, the team frequently embraces mob and pair programming and is better skilled to cover one another.
Story: A team’s unity was derailed when a new manager started displaying an overpowering presence. The manager would crash meetings and create chaos by questioning the team’s decisions and dictating the technical direction. Although the team started as a unified, high-performing, autonomous team, they started to lose interest in their work and stopped contributing ideas. As a result, unity was lost and product quality diminished.
A unified team or community is not one-sided. Unity can only succeed when everyone contributes without blame and people support one another.
Putting Community First
If you are currently focused on agile methodologies and practices, make sure you take a step back and think about the community, because the combined force is greater than the sum of its parts.
In improv and agile, success comes from a community that exemplifies transparency, adaptability, and unity. In improv, there is no show without community. In agile, without community, you just have another team running through the motions and punching a clock.
So, I ask: “Do you improv?”