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On Improv, Agile, and Fear at Agile Coach Camp Canada 2010

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Back in June, I attended Agile Coach Camp Canada 2010 and it was an amazing experience.  As some of you know, I had some issues getting to the camp, but once I was there I had the time of my life.

You can read Michael Lant’s excellent summary of the event or Selena Delesie’s great write up on the open space experience.  You can even watch all the lightning talks or see the session summaries.

For this post, however, I’m going to relate to you my personal experience attending the conference, since this conference single-handedly changed the way I approach working with Agile teams.

This was my first Agile conference and also my first open spaces conference, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  I was familiar with the concept of lightning talks and had been kicking around the idea of giving one.  But on what topic?  Would I go through the details of some of my previous Agile experiences?  Talk about what worked, what struggles I and the team went through, or what issues never got a satisfactory resolution?  Maybe.  But the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to talk about my other passion: Improv.

Improv has played a significant role in my life ever since I first read Truth and Comedy back in High School.  This book made me aware of the possibility that a group of performers could get together and perform an entire artistic piece without having a writer or director telling them what to do.  That on the spot these performers could organize themselves and produce a unique and valuable artistic experience that is greater than what the individuals themselves would have created had they been left to plan it out on their own.  That by working as a team, and by trusting each other, they could take risks with the confidence that their team would be there to support them.  And not just for short-form games like those featured on “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”, but for longer durations, producing stories and characters with depth and meaning.

So when I first came across Agile software development in my professional career, it didn’t strike me as “ridiculous” or “crazy” at all.  The idea that we could have self organizing teams producing great software was not only possible, it was obvious.

However, I took the connection between Improv and Agile for granted.  While it clearly informed me and my approach, I was often hesitant to fully explore it with teams and organizations for fear that it might be a little too “artsy” for them and cause some people to pull away from the whole process.

When I gave my brief talk about how Improv informs me and my approach at Agile Coach Camp, I was shocked with how well it resonated with others in the room.  I owe a large debt of gratitude to Michael Sahota for being excited enough about the idea to convince me to propose an open space for it the next day at the conference.  Something I was more than hesitant to do.

The session went better than I could have ever hoped and it was clear there was a place for this sort of hands on “artsy” approach in the community.  In fact, it seems to be gaining momentum.  I was told at the conference that Tobias Mayer, Creative Director of the Scrum Alliance has an Improv background.  Also, Matt Smith ran an Improv session at Agile 2010 this year which I hear was a hit.

And I realized, I never would have discovered any of this, or had this wonderful experience if I hadn’t gone to the conference and if I hadn’t gone up and given that original lightning talk.

Which brings me back to one of the core points of Improv.  A point that I often refer to when talking about making changes in an organization or when talking about the rules of various Agile approaches.  I studied for a bit with Keith Johnstone, one of founders of modern Improv, and he told us (paraphrasing), “You can do anything you want on stage, break any of the rules, as long as you don’t do it out of fear.”

I also recently found this great quote on fear and Improv from TJ and Dave from their amazing DVD “Trust Us, This is All Made Up”,

Most of being good at it… of being good at the work of it is… is to get over fear.

That everything that corrupts it comes from fear.  Fear is the root.  It brings that ego to the forefront of “How am I doing?  How’s it going? How am I being perceived right now?”

Yeah, most of my day is spent trying not to think about it.  What’s going to happen that night because I don’t want to become fearful about it.  And most of what happens in this room is about that.  Trying not to get fearful about it.

I think it’s not to overcome fear.  Fear just disappears.  It’s just not there.

This faith, this trust, and this confidence, when those things are in place, there’s no room for anything else.

If you’re thinking of making an Agile transition in your organization, the only question you have to ask yourself is, what are you afraid of?

So thank you to everyone at Agile Coach Camp Canada for allowing me to bridge the gap between my two passions and for helping me realize that once again, the only thing that’s stopping us is fear.

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  1. planningforfailure posted this