Some years ago Lyssa Adkins and Mike Vizdos were facilitating my CSM class. In one exercise Lyssa asked that we be able to deliver an elevator speech on Scrum. To prove how hard having such a speech available on demand was, she challenged me to talk about hard boiled eggs, expecting me to quickly fail. Some two minutes in just as I was getting warmed up, Lyssa interrupted the exercise I had inadvertently ruined with a question. “Have you ever done Improv?”. Of course, the answer was no, but a worm burrowed into my mind.
Fast forward to the recent. In trying to wrap my head around an Agile Transformation I was involved with, I had been reading Peter Block’s Community. I felt drawn to his ideas about bringing voices from the edge of a latent community towards the center. Another theme I liked was that rather than focussing on deficiencies, focus on the gifts that we bring and exchange in an emerging community. A third idea I took to heart is that transformation is linguistic in nature. To change the community we need to change the stories the community tells of itself. These and many other ideas are far more appealing than what was happening with the transformation, a blind application of a scaled framework. About the same time, I read “Improv Wisdom” by Patricia Ryan Madson, improv teacher and Professor Emerita from Stanford University. The book encouraged looking at life through the lens of thirteen maxims derived from her teachings on improv. She closes the book suggesting the reader experiences an Improv class to gain insight into the how the maxims evolved. The worm stirred.
A little Googling, a little waiting and I was at my first Improv 101 class at ComedySportz Richmond. I could go on about how great the class was, not only because of our fun-driven teacher Scot but because of the great group with varied backgrounds. None thank heavens were Agile. Scott’s approach was learning by doing. Over the course of eight weeks, we went from basic exercises to scene work with the aim of presenting a final showcase. There was too much joy along that journey to squeeze into this blog but if you ever get the chance to take a class, do it.
It wasn’t easy. Each week peeled back an onion layer to reveal more subtlety and difficulty. Watching the pros at the amazing weekend shows helped me to see how it could be effortless even if I couldn’t grasp it. I’ll pick off a couple of things though really stood because they made it particularly difficult given my day job as an Agile Coach. They are not really rules per se but they are examples of how Improv differentiates itself from a regular drama. They are more like boundaries that by their existence mark Improv as play.
The best-known rule is that in the course of a scene your partner will offer ideas and characters, twists and turns that move the scene forward. You must always receive these offerings and never deny them. If your partner is a giant baby then that is where you are both are and the point from which you must move forward. If you decide the sky needs to be purple your scene partner can’t say that’s stupid and make it blue again. It’s like a dance where you are trying to circle around an unseen “game”, trying to figure where a story and sense will emerge while never knowing how or when. A complex adaptive dance summoning forth a system of meaning. The offerings recall Block’s community gifts. Starting where you are and with what you have resonates more as the reality of a transformation rather than driving towards a target state. It recalls my favorite way of looking at relating to others by Bernie DeKoven: finding better ways to play well together.
“Don’t ask Questions”
The class struggled with this idea and for me, it was in direct contradiction to how I thought I was supposed to conduct myself as a coach. Ask powerful questions and let the answers from the team fill the silence. I was never good at that as I have never seen myself as being apart from the team but more a playful part of it. Maybe temporarily, but authentically. Sometimes questions are judgments and agendas in disguise. If I don’t like your choice I deposit my opinion between us as a leading question. A precursor to identity conflict ~ “I am my ideas and they are the right way” conflict. My opinion becomes a position. Parties form relative to that position. If we are in search of common interests then the questions probe our understanding of each other’s ideas. Questions of curiosity allow us to search for a common “game” and let us learn how we might play. We want to know more about each other’s ideas. The conflict is substantive conflict, productive conflict.
From a practical Improv view, questions drop a weight on your scene partner. Not only must they answer the question, which stalls the scene but they must answer it, and in a way that reboots the story. Trust stalls and the orbit breaks into two people facing each other across a void. By turning a question into a statement you make your current position transparent and in turn, this becomes the offering to your partner. They filter this new reality through the lens of their character. The pair of you spiral into “the game” or plot of the emergent story. I find this a compelling analogy for transformation. Each action is a small safe to fail (I prefer safe to play) experiment in moving the story of the transformation forward. Each party, in turn, pushes the new reality forward authentically through the “character” formed by their own interests and needs. The outcome is not predictable, not analyzed extensively in advance, yet recoverable should the parties begin to sense they are moving away from “the game”.
I don’t suggest that if we all practice Improv in our daily lives that the universe will be devoid of conflict. I do think that many of the Madson’s maxims can be used by teams as they move from discovering they have a common purpose to being in a state of team level flow. Agile teams refer to being high performing in deference to Tucker’s model. I prefer the term communitas used by Victor and Edith Turner in their work in anthropology.
I have used the term “anti-structure,”…to describe both liminality and what I have called “communitas.” I meant by it not a structural reversal…but the liberation of human capacities of cognition, affect, volition, creativity, etc., from the normative constraints incumbent upon occupying a sequence of social statuses (From Ritual to Theater, 44).
If moving from a typical notion of a team in conflict, either affective (I hate you/you hate me conflict) or on their way to substantive, it does seem that experimenting with Improv represents that liminal passageway the Turners talk about. An arc that ends in communitas and has as its middle the normal life of a typical analytical organization. Maybe the name for the start of the arc is the hapless state of alienation as described by Marx or Durkheim’s anomie.
“It is this anomic state that is the cause, as we shall show, of the incessantly recurrent conflicts, and the multifarious disorders of which the economic world exhibits so sad a spectacle”(Durkheim  1933, 5).
I call this the Community Continuum. People and conflict are present in some form all the way through until communitas. Conflict is necessary and recognizing the form it takes helps understand the state of a nascent community. As the arc moves right, conflict fades more to the background as the voices begin their orbit around the continually clarified positions. As positions are replaced by interest, orbits become oblique spirals centering their movement towards an emergent sense of community and its embedded web of culture. Whatever it ends up being, most likely this community will have three essential ingredients, [The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace p15, Scott Peck]:
I’ve thrown a selection of ideas I’ve picked up along the way on this diagram of the Community Continuum just to see what resonates. I’ve spent a few years on Agile efforts in the realm of alienation and the midrange of conflicting parties. Maybe it’s too much to expect this current transformation to be anything different. My improv experience was not about some grand new vision on how to affect change. It was play. Bounded in time and by agreed upon rules. It was apart from reality as play should be. However, it did allow me to experience what true community felt like. I’ll continue my Improv journey as part of the CSZ Richmond Minor League Troupe. The combination of play and a guild-like experience is what I have been looking for.
Ultimately our tiny band of improv apprentices made it through the class and put on a successful showcase for family and friends. We supported each other and the audience supported us with their laughter. We were aligned and devoid of ego. We entered a state of collective flow. What was an hour long show we were convinced took only about twenty minutes.
We experienced communitas.