I've been writing code for a long time.
My first "20 goto 10" lines of code were some time in grade school on a TRS-80. I dabbled in C/C++ and Pascal in middle school and high school but didn't really set about any real, structured code until I got myself to college.
I've been doing Improv for a long time.
I experienced my first Spolin game in the winter of my freshman year of college. Before then my only other experience with the theatre was a production of Peter Pan in grade school.
If we consider my first day of college (way back in the fall of 1991) as day 0, then I have only been writing code for a few months longer than I've been doing improv. Please take a moment to consider that, and then promptly get off my lawn.
Now that you are safely on the side walk, we can continue.
My art and my career developed independently for quite a while before I started to understand how my two passions actually complimented each other incredibly well. It wasn't until I became a consultant, though, that the blending of these two sides of my personality truly began to work together in ways that I hadn't truly considered possible.
I have done a significant amount of corporate training through improv outside of my role as a software consultant, focused mainly on team building and problem solving. When I started to investigate agile methodologies and apply them first personally, and then to my project teams, I truly saw the light and understood the power of the idea of Yes as a part of the daily cadence of software development itself and not just something the people at the top should be embracing.
This post is an investigation on the blending of Agile Methodologies and the techniques of Improvisational Theatre, and how to use the powers of agreement and the agility of scrum to truly embrace delivery and continuous improvement.
Defining Continuous Improvement (Kaizen 改善)
改 = reform/renew/redo/alter/improve/change, 善 = good/goodness
For the sake of full disclosure, I speak enough Japanese to know that there is nothing about "continuous" when you read the Kanji "Kaizen". The translation is actually closer to "The act of making bad points better" but it was incorporated by Toyota into their manufacturing processes and the 'continuous' was added as an aspect of their lean culture. It has been adopted by the agile/scrum community, where it has stuck and taken on a life of its own.
In this context, it's an approach to work that systematically seeks to achieve small, incremental changes in processes in order to improve efficiency and quality.
To implement change, we need to be able to identify the current state. A set of repeatable measures need to be identified and taken to set a baseline. These measurements need to be retaken and regular intervals, reevaluated as useful and reapplied as needed. These incremental measurements will allow us to make incremental changes to our processes with the goal of over all improvement.
For a project team, this might mean improving delivery cadence or quality, team communication and transparency or even something as simple as meeting attendance. These might also be important metrics for a management or executive team or even a sales team, which might also be interested in overall sales numbers, etc. The areas for improvement are as endless as the number of definitions for "good" or "done" or even "Quality" in the corporate world.
Regardless of the area, we need to be able to measure, make small changes and measure again in timely increments.
Agile processes like scrum codify the rituals around the reporting of the data and there are libraries full of books on ideas on how to enact that change. But we don't need a library, we need two words. Yes, AND!
Defining How we Decide and Act
We all make millions of little decisions. We all make big decisions at points in our life. At some point, we all have to decide. Whether it's what color socks to wear, what we're going to have for lunch, If we should quit our job or what grandma would have really wanted. We all have to decide.
How we make those decisions, though, and how to make the right decisions has been the discussion of philosophers for millennia. One of those philosophers was Col. John "40 Second" Boyd. But he wasn't just a Philosopher. He was a decorated pilot, strategist and military theorist most know for the Energy-Maneuverability theory and was directly Responsible for for Design of F-16 and FA-18 aircraft.
Important to our discussion is his perception of decision making, and how you can train your mind to make better decisions faster. He called this process an OODA loop, and it's elegant complexity is fascinating. An O.O.D.A loop is a learning system; a method for dealing with uncertainty, and a strategy for winning head-to-head contests and competitions. In it's definition you will find aspects of Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics.
Boyd inferred that any logical model of reality is incomplete (and possibly inconsistent) and must be continuously refined/adapted in the face of new observations, that there is a limitation in our ability to observe reality with precision, and that just as a closed system in nature will have increasing entropy or disorder, so too will a person or organization experience mental entropy or disorder if they're cut off from the outside world and new information.
"[..]for Boyd, uncertainty is the pervasive element of human endeavor, indeed, it is the prime characteristic of life â€¦ thinking strategically under such a condition requires a continuous combination of analysis and synthesisâ€¦ and a multidisciplinary and multi-spectral approach
The OODA loop is much less a model of decision-making than a model of individual and organizational learning and adaptation in which the element of orientation plays the dominant role in the game of hypothesis and test, of analysis and synthesis, of destruction and creation." Science, Strategy and War; The Strategic theory of John Boyd, Col. Frans P.B. Osinga, Royal Netherlands Air Force
Of course, Boyd's theory was more complex than just OODA. He understood that there were several factors at each stage that effected our ability to decide or colored those decisions; from cultural background to past experiences, everything effected our decisions.
Regardless of these variables, we all need, in his opinion, to be able to move through this loop quickly and with awareness to be better at our given tasks
Improvisation and the Power of Yes, AND!
When you are working with a team, to be truly successful and at your creative/performance best, the ego of decision making needs to be stripped away. A personal desire for your idea to be chosen must be sacrificed over the exploration and selection of the best idea being chosen . To accomplish this, say "Yes!" and agree to listen.
Saying "Yes" is not tacit agreement that the idea presented is the best idea, it is the agreement that you will listen and explore and reserve judgement. When you add something to the idea ("Yes, AND!"), regardless of your opinion of the quality, you continue to agree to the creation of the best solution. Through this process of group based additive exploration, the right solution will be determined. By keeping the discovery process timeboxed, the team can always return to the process with the knew knowledge of experimentation and their previous sessions as known data to either expand on old ideas or determine new solutions to old problems.
I personally like to brain storm ideas in a specific cycle. Using a white board and post-its (Scrum keeps 3M in business), I like to quick fire throw out ideas for 5 minutes or until the idea wheel slows down. Once we have a decent sized stable of general ideas or one or two that we seem to be circling around, I start a mind map on the white board centered around each post it, in turn. This stage is critical for everyone to be up and at the board. Anyone can write and link ideas (I like to have several different colors available, it's amazing how quickly classifications can start just by allowing a team to self organize their thoughts in this way).
During this process, I encourage the group to limit dissent (it's hard with developers, sometimes) and to focus on "Yes." Critical conversation based on knowledge and experience is key, ego based denial is a death sentence.
Once all the ideas (or the group favorites) have been decomposed, I ask the team who would like to take ownership of which ideas (accountability is key). It is at this point that, as a functional whole, the team starts to determine the best paths based on common, group knowledge of each idea.
Sometimes the best technical solution isn't always obvious and multiple solutions have to be attempted. In Agile we want to fail early, fail often but fail small. We want to get as may ideas out on the table, dissect them into viable and not-so-viable and act in the smallest possible segment to move the team forward to done.
Bringing it Together
Whether working on a software development team or in a head-to-head dog fight, the ability to make strong, informed decisions that support your desired goals is key to your success. For the Agile team, the ability to agree and advanced ideas while eliminating our ego based judgements is critical to effective decision making and problem solving, and often lends itself to more creative solutions in much less time.
In scrum we rely on the three pillars of scrum (Transparency, Inspection, and Adaptation) to support our process and to provide us feedback for continuous improvement. In improv we apply our experience and knowledge with an egoless agreement throughout the scene to create an emotional connection between the players, the audience and the piece being performed. By applying egoless and informed agreement to our project based decision making we will build better, more transparent teams that draw on the deep and varied experience of all members to build better products and deliver higher quality with more tightly knit and connected groups.
You can find the slides I use for this discussion here
This presentation is accompanied by an in-depth, two day hands-on team workshop designed to immerse your team in the power of Yes, And. Please reach out to me for more information.