Conferences can be mundane, especially if you attend one alone. Attendees fall into patterns of waking up, eating at a set time, sitting in set classes with a set schedule of things to talk about, and having a lot of set conversations. But the keynote that took place earlier this morning at Agile2015 tried to disrupt the conference mold of the same old routines and break attendees out of their comfort zone.
Jessie Shternshus, who founded the communication-focused training company The Improv Effect, took to the stage to talk about individuals, interactions and improvisation in agile, and she not only brought fun into the conference, she also brought fun into the methodology and proved that you can find agile in the most unexpected places.
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Coming from a career in teaching, and a background in improvisation, you wouldn’t expect that she would have a firm grasp of agile software development and applying it to work. But she quickly debunked those notions.
“Improv is the practice of reacting, and making and creating something in the moment, and because of this, we invent new thought patterns, new ways of thinking, [and] new products,” said Shternhus. According to her, those foundations of improvisation are much like agile. “It is like two creative types of minds mashed together to make something really cool.”
In agile, the focus is on stories and case studies, moving forward, responding to change, honoring the vision over the plan, failing fast, collaborating with customers, and doing retrospectives to learn. Similarly, in improv, exercises train participants to be present and reactive, operate unscripted, use mistakes as opportunities, use the audience’s perspective to gain feedback, and do troupe retrospectives, Shternshus explained.
To go even further, Shternshus had the audience do a number of improv exercises to show how they could be applied to agile.
“If you are open to not forcing an agenda on people, you will usually be delighted and surprised, and you will see a whole new perspective,” she said. “The idea is that you know [that] by saying no, the response [gets] people on the defensive, or they just shut down completely.”
The exercise taught the audience how to listen to what team members are saying, and to learn how to be self-aware if they are the person always shutting down ideas.
“It is all about setting up other people for success, and that success will come back to you,” said Shternshus.
Another exercise was about coming up with rejected superheroes and passing them along to someone new to come up with a sidekick. “The idea to this is about how do you respond to change. You can reject it, or you can embrace it,” said Shternshus. “When you collaborate with a group of people, sometimes it is delightfully surprising, and you get to somewhere you maybe wouldn’t have gone to if you had worked alone.”
Other tenets of improv she related to agile were responding to change and collaborating with customers. When someone makes a mistake during an improv show, the improvisers have to embrace the mistake and change their perspective. “No good ideas come out of status quo,” she said.
In improv, participants also have to listen to constant customer feedback to learn what to do next, much like in agile where you have to listen to what customers do and don’t like, explained Shternshus. “Sometimes you get rotten tomatoes or stone-cold crickets, but it is feedback and it lets us know we shouldn’t do that anymore.”
While the talk was an uplifting start of the day, the main takeaway of comparing the two techniques was to get the audience to grasp the idea that anyone can be agile, and that it isn’t only about the process; it is about the people, and not to lose sight of that.
“Realize that there are so many different techniques and tricks you can learn from so many different industries,” said Shternshus. “Agile development is about being flexible. It is about the team being ready for unexpected changes at any time. It is about integrating rapidly, finding out what’s happening in small releases. And it is about continuous improvement.”