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I’m an Agilist, a former software engineer, a gamer, an improviser, a podcaster emeritus, and a wine lover. Learn more.

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Entries in improv (18)


Improv and Agile on the Brain

Last week I had the pleasure of presenting alongside my partner-in-crime Jake Calabrese at the Scrum Gathering in New Orleans. For ninety minutes, we walked twenty or so folks through a series of improv exercises that they could use in an Agile context. Stephen Starkey captured it nicely:

Paul Goddard ran a similar session right before ours, and on the last day of the conference the three of us teamed up to run another impromptu session. This set my brain to spinning, and when I got home, I found that one of our participants wanted me to come and run a series of workshops on these topics at her company, which happens to be in the Los Angeles area. I don’t think its going to work out (I’m not really set up to do that kind of thing right now), but it reinforced that there is real interest in this area.

One of the promises I made to myself at the conference was that I would continue my exploration of these topics. Here’s my short list of possible future conference session topics:

  • Complexity, Improvisation, and Agile
  • Improv Games for Scrum Ceremonies
  • Status Work for Managers and Coaches

Improv For Software Engineers

Back in May, I spoke at the 3rd Santa Barbara PechaKucha Night. If you can stand hearing me say, “right?” approximately once every 5 seconds, here it is.


Link Roundup for 12 February 2012

I’ve been sitting on a bunch of improv and storytelling links for a while… and now it’s time to share them.


On Stage Again

Last night was my first Friday performance with the Ventura Improv Company in a while, and it was great fun to get back to. We have a slightly different mix of experience levels in our Friday night shows than we do on Saturdays, and we use it as an opportunity for newer members of the troupe to work with our more experienced players. Despite doing this for almost five years now, it’s still hard for me to accept that I’m in the latter group. Last night, though, I felt like I held up my end of the bargain.

I’ll be performing again this month, on Friday, December 30th. That show will be with my long-form team, Instant Karma, as a build-up to our annual New Year’s Eve Gala. If you’re in Ventura that weekend, you should come out to one or both shows. It’s certain to be a lot of fun.


Listen and Change

I should stop being surprised by how much my training as an actor and an improviser is useful beyond performance. Today’s epiphany was about feedback.

As an actor, you have to learn to take the note. This was hammered home to me during my sophomore year in college. After one of the last rehearsals before our play opened, the assistant director was giving me feedback on some lines I had fumbled. I was working through them, and in the process I was explaining why I’d messed them up. The director — my friend Rob — looked at me and said, “Paul. Take the note.” And I got it. The AD wasn’t asking me questions, so no answers were required. He was telling what I needed to fix, and my commentary on why I’d done what I had didn’t matter to that. I stopped talking, acknowledged the input, and next rehearsal I fixed it.

Sometimes, when we get feedback on something we’ve done, we don’t always want to take the note. When someone says, “Could it do this instead?” our instinct is to say that would be hard, or to say that they shouldn’t want it to do that, or any of many other variations on “no” that use more words than that. We don’t really listen to what they’re saying because we’ve become defensive and feel the need to justify what we’ve done. Fortunately, there’s way out of this.

First, take the note. Listen to what they’ve said and what concern it expresses. Why are they asking for this change to the feature? What’s at stake here for them? They wouldn’t bring it up if it didn’t matter to them, so your first job is to figure out what’s important here. It’s not about you at this point, so don’t just wait for your turn to talk — listen.

Then, do what a good improviser would do and ask “How could I say yes to this?” The reason you’re getting this feedback is because the person giving it to you perceives a gap between what is present and what is needed. Feedback systems exist to close that gap. That means that we have to be open to changing based on feedback. If not, we’re running in open-loop control.

Saying yes can be hard, of course. Maybe there’s a powerful reason why you can’t do exactly what they’re asking for. If so, see if you can propose an alternative that captures the essence of the concern they’re raised. Maybe you think what they’re asking for is a bad idea. In that case, you really need to figure out their perspective, because you probably don’t have the same understanding of the situation. Dig deeper into the reasons for their request, being open to the possibility that that there’s something you don’t know that makes their position make sense. And maybe you just don’t know how to get around what’s preventing you from giving them what they want. In that case, collaborate on a solution with them. Tell them, “I’d like to find a way to do that for you. I’ve got these problems that I’m not sure how to deal with. Can you help me work through them?” You may not always be able to get to yes together, but you have to try.

In order for feedback systems to work, we have to (a) listen to the information we’re getting, and (b) act on that information to change the situation. These can be hard things to do, but a simple place to start is by taking the note and considering how to to say yes.