5 Principles From Improv One Can Apply to Agile

ImprovMy work as a software architect and developer has brought me a lot of challenges and I am constantly trying to improve the way I work. One of my personal “rules” is regularly to try something different from what I usually do at the workplace. This takes me out of my comfort zone and provides fruitful insights in other areas. That’s how almost an year ago I started doing improv. Improv comes from improvisation and the simple idea behind it is that actors create a story on the stage on the fly, i.e. nothing is prepared in advance. They typically take a single word from the audience to inspire them and then, depending on the chosen format, the actors should coordinate themselves on the stage and fascinate the people in the audience. In this post I have gathered 5 principles used in improv, one can also apply to Agile.

1. React to change

When you are on the stage, you are building your own character. However, you do not have much control over which characters your teammates are going to create for themselves. The fun part comes when two controversial features of two characters clash on the stage. Then you have to react right away – you can choose how you want to do it though, either to accept what has been said to you, or to reject it and heighten the feature of your character. Whichever direction one chooses, it is all about showing your character from a different angle. The same applies to agile teams in a way. Agile is all about being flexible and reacting to changes, even late in the project. There are typically a few solutions one could choose, each with some trade-offs. No matter which way the team chooses, there should be a reaction to that change.

2. The team over the individual

Improv is a group sport. You are playing together with other people and it is very important to support each other. The audience will enjoy the show only if everything goes smoothly on the stage, so that it looks like a real play. The same applies to teams that want to be agile – if the team spirit is not present, then the entire project is doomed. There should be respect in the team and whatever happens, it is everyone’s job to handle it in a good way.

3. Listen to each other

In improv it is extremely important to listen to what your fellows are saying on the stage. If you miss even a simple thing, you can get into a funny situation, where you are building your character in a completely different world than your teammates are in. While this is totally OK, as in improv you are free to do everything, the audience will notice it and will not enjoy the show. Agile teams should also pay attention to what each member brings on the table. If there is any misunderstanding in the team, it should be fixed right away, rather than waiting for a later moment, as it could already be very costly to apply the necessary changes.

4. Say yes to each other

One of the founding principles of improv is to say “Yes” to each other. As everything happens on the fly, actors do not know what each member of the team has in his head. What they do is they build a common world together by accepting everything the others say. This also requires of course that actors listen carefully to each other. In Agile this could be applied when generating possible solutions to a given task. Many people tend to reject ideas too quickly without carefully examining them. This could lead to that a not so optimal solution is chosen which could make the project suffer at a later point.

5. Have fun together

When I perform with my group we always repeat to ourselves that we are there to have fun as well. If we don’t enjoy what we do on the stage, we cannot ask the audience to do it. The same applies 100% to development teams – if the people don’t enjoy what they produce and the way they work together, this momentarily affects the final outcome. Every problems in the team should be solved before solving the problems of your customers.

Bonus: Don’t judge yourself, don’t judge the team

If you constantly judge yourself or the others in your team, you are putting a bad label on each other. This will affect negatively the way these people (or you) think or approach a task next time and will decrease the motivation in the team. Instead the team should regularly discuss their collaboration and solve any problem together.