Agile, Improv, and Learning How to Fail: An Interview with Jessie Shternshus


In this interview, Jessie Shternshus, the owner and founder of The Improv Effect, explains the similarities between agile development and improvisation. She details how, in both cases, team members need to learn how to support each other, build on work, and be comfortable with failure.

Josiah Renaudin: Welcome back to another TechWell interview. Today I am joined by Jessie Shternshus, the owner and founder of The Improv Effect and a keynote speaker at this year's Agile Dev, Better Software & DevOps East Conference. She'll be speaking on individuals' interactions and improvisation relating to agile.

Jessie, thank you so much for doing this today.

Jessie Shternshus: Thanks for having me.

Josiah Renaudin: Absolutely. And before we really get into the meat of the keynote, can you tell us just a bit about your experience in the industry?

Jessie Shternshus: Sure. So, I am a trainer, and a coach, and a speaker. And I started my company about ten years ago. And some of the first clients that I had were kind of in the tech space, so that's how I got introduced in the world of agile. Although since then, it's kind of made its way to every industry.

Josiah Renaudin: And it's funny, you usually don't think of someone who's in improv naturally going to software. But you point to a lot of similarities in the abstract you have posted on our website. So can you briefly explain how you actually started to realize the similarities between agile team principles and improvisation?

Jessie Shternshus: Sure. So, some of those first clients that I had I was working with on a pretty regular basis. And they were developers who brought me in to help them with communication skills and collaboration, kind of getting their word out there and feeling more comfortable speaking. And I was with them for so long, I started to realize that their culture was really interesting to me, and it seemed really warm and it felt familiar. And it turned out that they were practicing agile, which I knew nothing about at the time. And so I was just curious and wanted to know more about it. And it turns out that there were lots of similarities between agile, or the Agile Manifesto, and the things that we use in improv every day.

Josiah Renaudin: And anyone who's ever done theater or improv, that support from the people around you, in the case of agile, your teammates, but if you're doing improv or if you're doing a play, you need the actors around you to support you so you know, all right, I can feel confident in what I'm doing and keep progressing and keep going. So how critical is it to support your teammates within an agile team and make sure that you have the confidence in what you're doing to make sure that, okay, I'm on the right track, I need to keep going?

Jessie Shternshus: Well, I think it's all about setting your team up for success and being an effective communicator. That's part of it. And being aware of how you come across on a team, so that, in the end, the goal that everybody has in mind gets accomplished. And you can't do that if everybody's kind of going their separate ways. And that is exactly like improv. You have each other, you have a goal in mind, but there's a lot of improvising to get to the goal. So, agile and improv are very, very similar in that they set each other up for team success.

Josiah Renaudin: And beyond just supporting what someone's doing individually, so much of agile and so much of improv is building on the ideas of those around you. It's kind of stacking, like, layers to a cake. You use someone's idea, you build on that, and you keep building, building, building. So in your comparison to agile that you're going to be talking about in your keynote, what are some key ways the developers, testers, and other members of an agile development team can build on what others are doing around them?

Jessie Shternshus: I think the first thing they need to have in order to build is to be able to listen—so, to be able to hear what other people are saying enough to understand it and be inspired by it and move forward. So I think that is the most basic need.

And then I think, from there, it's hearing what people have to say and being nonjudgmental, and just playing around with what those ideas are and seeing where they go. So even if they're not the ideas that are, in the end, the sort of golden solution, they may be part of what got you to the golden solution. And that way everybody feels included and validated, and it's kind of a group effort.

Josiah Renaudin: Yeah, not every single idea is going to be this perfect, like, "Well, that's the ideal way we're gonna do this." Sometimes you have to have some bad ideas before you get to the good ideas. And same thing with, if anyone's ever watched Whose Line Is It Anyway?, a lot of the mess-ups, the blunders along the way, are what lead to the funniest bits, to the funniest jokes. So, similarly, you often see people flip mistakes around, like, again, these improv scenes.

So, how can testers and developers see their own mistakes, learn from them, and use these mistakes to actually improve their software? Because we can say, "Oh, there'll be mistakes along the way," but how do you not get discouraged and use that as motivation?

Jessie Shternshus: I think first the environment needs to be set up so that part of the agile mindset is to be okay with making mistakes, with exploring those, learning from them, and gaining new perspective. I think the more that people see there's a new perspective, or a new idea that comes out of the mistakes, the more they're willing to sort of put themselves out there and not just do status quo because they're afraid that somebody's going to get mad if they do something wrong.

Josiah Renaudin: And knowing that you're going to make mistakes, I think, maybe it's easy in improv because you'll embarrass yourself, but after you've done that for long enough, you get used to embarrassing yourself, to a certain extent. Especially if you're comfortable with that team. But if it's money on the line, and a team's success on the line, and maybe your manager's success on the line, is it, you think, more difficult for an agile team to embrace not only making mistakes, but embrace the unknown? Because a lot of the idea of improv is trying new things and not really knowing how they land. Is that harder, you think, in an agile software development kind of environment?

Jessie Shternshus: It might be a little bit harder, but the nice thing about agile is you're not pushing something forward before you've ever tested it. So you're doing things in small chunks and constantly testing things so that when you make mistakes, it's a lot more low-risk, if you will. So it's not like waterfall, where you were working on something for five years, and a billion dollars later, you're like, "Hey, guys, do you love this product?" and it sucks. And then you also lost a billion dollars and all your customers. So by setting it up to have small mistakes, or small wins, along the way, I don't think failure is much of a scar or damage on the team.

Josiah Renaudin: Yeah, and I think along the way, very often in agile, you're in communication more with your audience, with your consumers, with possible buyers to kind of say, hey, do you want this product, or is this just gonna be trash you don't want? Am I going to, like you said, invest millions or billions of dollars, then realize no, no one wants this? No one wants a Google replacement; we have a Google.

Jessie Shternshus: Just my mom.

Josiah Renaudin: Yeah, she's the only one, and I don't think she's gonna be able to recoup all of these costs. So, you think about that very often in improvisation. You're playing off the crowd, whether they're laughing, sometimes they're taking ideas and suggestions from them in order to build bits, in order to play off of each other. So, do you kind of see that similarly for agile, where you read your audience to make sure that you can help build a software that works best for them?

Jessie Shternshus: Definitely. So that's one of the similarities I noticed first, because in improv, like you said, you're doing a show and you have this goal in mind, but you're not exactly sure how it's going to get there. So you're relying on the audience to give you real-time feedback, and you use that feedback to decide whether you want to keep pushing forward in that direction, or you want to change ever so slightly or just completely get rid of it because it's like crickets in the crowd and nobody's doing anything, so then you know to change. And that's so similar to agile, where you should have that back-and-forth dialogue with your customer so that they're able to tell you in real time what they like, what they need, how things should change, and how to move forward. And having that back-and-forth communication eliminates a lot of the potential huge, gigantic mistakes that are very costly.

Josiah Renaudin: Yeah, absolutely. That communication's critical.

This is a slightly off-the-beaten-path question, but are there any common improv warm-ups that you know of, as someone who's been doing this for a long time, that you can carry over into agile in any sort of way to maybe help establish trust between team members, or sharpen concentration, or anything else?

Jessie Shternshus: Yeah, there are lots of exercises. I kind of always go back to things around listening first, because I feel like if you don't have those basics of listening, or self-awareness, it's really pointless to do any of the other things. If nobody in the stand-up is paying attention to each other, then why did you even have the stand-up in the first place? So I think listening is always key. So there's a lot of exercises around listening that I like to do with agile teams.

A simple one is something I call Spell Your Weekend, where if you and I were on the team, we would pair up and we would talk about the weekend that we just had, or the one coming up. However, we would spell it to each other. So every single word is spelled out. So it would be like, H-O-W W-A-S Y-O-U-R W-E-E-K-E-N-D? And, you get the point. So it's difficult, but it makes you hyper-focused, and it makes you pay attention in a way that you might not, where you might be just sort of waiting for your turn to say something and push an agenda.

Josiah Renaudin: I would be so concerned that I'd spell something way too easy incorrectly immediately. Suddenly I'm just spelling “how” wrong, and I'm like, oh, these people can't trust me in any sort of situation.

Just to round up the interview here, more than anything, what central message do you want to leave with your keynote audience? What's the main thing you kind of want them to walk away with?

Jessie Shternshus: Yeah, I'd like them to walk away with the understanding that there are lots of tools that you can gain from very unexpected places. So, if you're in a situation where you've kind of run dry and you've done these exercises over and over again and people stop paying attention, or you need the culture to be better with your team, that you could actually go to things like improv, learn very simple exercises, and help you practice using that muscle that makes an agile mindset really well-tuned.

And so I think if people can leave understanding that they can find things in different places, as well as take some actual tools with them when we do some exercises during the keynote, that would be fantastic.

Josiah Renaudin: Yeah, I think it's a really cool, unique topic, too.

Jessie, thanks so much for doing this. I appreciate you taking the time. I'm looking forward to hearing the entire thing at Better Software East.

Jessie Shternshus: Thanks. That was fun, and I can't wait.

Jessie SOwner and founder of The Improv Effect, Jessie Shternshus helps individuals and businesses reach their full potential through interpersonal-communication skills improvement, leadership training, and agile/executive coaching. Jessie has been a key player in internal culture transformations for global companies. Her clients include executives from Netflix, Crayola, Groupon, Skype, Adecco, Capital One, and many technology startups. She is a sought-after keynote speaker at many design, technology, and agile conferences. Using an array of experiential techniques, design-thinking exercises, and agile methodologies, Jessie leads teams and organizations as they endeavor to improve teamwork, creative problem solving tools, presentation skills, strategic planning, and product development ideation sessions. Jessie is the coauthor of CTRLShift: 50 Games for 50 ****ing Days Like Today.

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