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Eleven Improv Commandments for Agile Teams

Improvisational comedy techniques have been making their way into agile training discussions for some time.  The UK (and beyond) Agile Coaches Gathering devoted their 2009 autumn meeting to "Improvisation for Agile Coaches."  Planning for Failure's amazing Todd Charon did this wonderful lightning talk in 2010.  And this week, Lisa Crispin posted an enthusiastic review of Mike Sutton's half-day improv session for AgileCoachCamp US.

From Del Close's skull's MySpace Page
I've always felt happier belonging to the "yes-and" teams much more than the "no-but" ones, but and I wanted to see for myself how improv philosophies and techniques could provide a useful framework for agile/lean software development.  So, inspired by Lisa, here's what I found out.

Most inquiries into improv lead to Del Close, granddaddy of Chicago-style improvisational comedy, and co-author of Truth in Comedy:  The Manual of Improvisation.  Del famously bequeathed his skull to Chicago's Goodman Theater, to be used as Yorick in productions of Hamlet.  His co-author and executor, Charna Halpern, was unable to obtain his actual skull and was forced to donate a purchased replacement, which skulduggery (sorry) was subsequently unearthed (again) by The Chicago Tribune and reported on with great amusement by The New Yorker in 1999.

Del had what he called "the Eleven Commandments" of improv, encompassed, more or less, by this list:
  • You are all supporting actors.
  • Always check your impulses.
  • Never enter a scene unless you are NEEDED.
  • Save your fellow actor, don`t worry about the piece.
  • Your prime responsibility is to support.
  • Work at the top of your brains at all times.
  • Never underestimate or condescend to your audience.
  • No jokes (unless it is tipped in front that it is a joke.)
  • Trust... trust your fellow actors to support you; trust them to come through if you lay something heavy on them; trust yourself.
  • Avoid judging what is going down except in terms of whether it needs help (either by entering or cutting), what can best follow, or how you can support it imaginatively if your support is called for.
  • LISTEN 
Do these apply?  Well, it's not clear in the software development context that jokes shouldn't be allowed, unless the team includes a particularly bad punster.  But with that specific caveat aside, these rules are wonderful for describing how to behave when you're part of a team, not an individual achiever.

In particular, the advice to trust, avoid judgement, provide support, and check impulses seems like it would go quite a long way to create a team where everyone would want to be working with the best part of their brain at all times.

What I like the best, though, is the advice to "save your fellow actor, don't worry about the piece."  The example Todd Charon provides in his YouTube video is of a case where a troupe was performing on a slippery stage, and the first person went out and fell off a chair while pretending to screw in a lightbulb.  Without hesitation, a second troupe member ran out on stage and did the exact same thing, turning a potentially embarrassing and show-stopping moment into "part of the show."

There are a lot of lessons for us in this vignette about a unified and supportive team stance in face of adversity, and about how to communicate with stakeholders in a face-saving way at all times.  But at the end of the day, what I like about this advice is that as you look over the course of your career, you really DON'T care if this project or that one succeeded or failed.  Even my successful software projects have been rendered obsolete by the passage of time.  I think fondly of the Dbase III purchase request generating system I wrote in 1985, for example.  But what matters over time is the relationships you build with the people around you.

I'm pretty sure "focus on the present" is another rule of improv which holds very true for agile software development teams.  But how nice that this art form shows how focusing on the present sets you up well for a life well lived.

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