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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Adam Weisbart on Improv, Magic and Fun on Agile Teams

Adam Weisbart on Improv, Magic and Fun on Agile Teams


1. Hi, my name is Craig Smith, I’m an Agile editor at InfoQ, and we’re here at Agile 2015 in Washington, D.C. It’s my great pleasure to have Adam Weisbart with me. How you doing Adam?

I’m doing well. How are you?

Craig: Excellent, thank you. So, we’ve chatted before. I think we chatted at an Agile conference a few years ago, and I think then I quipped that I call you the fun guy in Agile.

Thank you.

Craig: To bring the fun into Agile. So, you’re a Certified Scrum Trainer and Coach at your own company, Weisbart Consulting.



2. Tell us very briefly who is Adam Weisbart?

Who is Adam Weisbart? I started my career as a developer. Eventually, discovered the Scrum thing and got super excited about it, and over the years became a Certified Scrum Trainer. So now I travel around teaching Certified Scrum Master classes, and doing onsite coaching and training.

And then sort of on the side, which I think is another full-time job, I come up with these different exercises, or retrospectives, or whatnot to try to really make things more fun. I came across it initially just trying to think of new tools for my teams to use, so they would get more engaged and have a good time doing it. So, I’ve come up with a bunch of --

Craig: We talked about some of that last time, so you’ve got the awesome Retrospective Cookies, the card wall app that reminds you to update the card wall. And the Build Your Own Scrum, which I guess is one of my personal favorites.

Yes. Build Your Own Scrum has been great. Hundreds of trainers are using it all over the world. I’m responsible for Scrum Master icons and arrows ending up on the floor all over the world, unfortunately.

But a great way for teaching Scrum from the back of the room without a bunch of boring lecture and such. So I love when people download that. They can get it on my site and use it for their teams. Fun stuff.


3. [...] You’ve got a deck of cards that goes with that. What’s the whole point of the Agile Antipatterns cards and discussion?

Craig's full question: if you want to know about all those things, go and look at the video we recorded a couple of years ago. But there’s been some new things since then. And I think when we last talked you were going down the path of Agile Antipatterns, and those being something that you wanted to remove, or at least to have people talk about more in the Agile community. So, you’ve got a deck of cards that goes with that. What’s the whole point of the Agile Antipatterns cards and discussion?

Yes. So I tried to capture these both from my own work as a coach, and also by collecting them from around the world from the Agile Antipattern project. And what I found out was there’s some very common patterns, which is not surprising or Antipatterns in this case.

And the goal of making these cards was to have the one sentence you might hear that would encapsulate this thing. So that when you heard it back at the office, you would quickly realize, “Hey, that’s an Antipattern.” And you could address it. As a new coach or just a new Scrum Master, I wasn’t necessarily catching on to these things as quickly as I now think I should have. And so my hope with them was if you have a deck of these thingsyou can both, as a coach, use them as a way to identify these sorts of impediments, or use it as a retrospective approach with your teams, so they can identify these things. Which one of these cards are we currently running into? How do we address them?


4. What’s an example of one of them that you might use?

My boss is on my team. Our daily Scrum only took 45 minutes. I was pulled off this project and put on an emergency project again. Those sorts of things. Usually when I read through these, if I do a session on them or whatnot, I have people clap if they’ve heard them before. And there is way more clapping than I would hope there would be, so they’re quite common.

Craig: Excellent. And I guess going along with that and again we’ve talked about that before, people should go and check out your funny video about the things that Scrum Masters say that almost sounds like it’s got all those in there.

It does. It does. The Antipatterns definitely inspired a bunch of this stuff, and stuff bad Scrum masters say, for sure.

Craig: Absolutely. And it’s not stuff, it’s something else that we can –

Yes, you probably won’t say on air.

Craig: But you’ve been doing a bunch of really cool things. So here at the conference and your talk here is, and I’m going to take a deep breath for this, “Agile Jesters, Magicians and Clowns: Using the Unexpected to move Mountains in your Team”.


Craig: Did I get that out?

You did. That was amazing. Will you do it tomorrow for me, because it’s too long?

Craig: You are all on your own!



5. But I guess the point behind this is that you’re looking at about how to use things like improv, and that’s actually something I see people talking a lot more about at conferences more and more. So, how does this all get together? How does improv help you with Agile?

Well, the thought here is that both comedy, which you can get to through improv with your team; magic, all these things have a juxtaposition that when your brain flips the switch, you find something funny or amazing, or whatnot. And I think that when you’re in that moment of awe or excitement, there’s a lot more energy than you generally have.

And so what I try to do in this workshop, and then in some of my other work, is help inspire teams with that while they inspire themselves, I guess. So they can move forward and bust through patterns they’ve been stuck in for a long time. And particularly about improv, to answer your question, there’s this idea of yes-and, where you take somebody’s offer in improv. Someone gives you a scene, offer, or whatnot, and you reply to that by adding to it.

One of the exercises we do in the session tomorrow is play a game where first you’re planning a party with a partner, and someone makes a suggestion and you just say no to it. And when they make another suggestion, you say no again. And then we try doing that with, they make a suggestion and you say yes and then you add something else to it.

And what you’ll find through this exercise is you come up with a great brainstorm together. You build a great party, whereas if you just say no the whole time, nothing moves forward. And the same can be said for a Scrum team. And it doesn’t have to be that you think their idea is the best idea in the world. It’s that you support it and help it move forward, as opposed to just saying no to everything.


6. So to you use improv with your team, how would that go? Would you pick a topic, something like what we talked about before, like our daily Scrums take 45 minutes and then try and improv that? Is that that the idea?

No. From improv I would probably borrow some lightning games, or warm-up games at the beginning of a retrospective. Just spend a minute or two playing one of these silly games that seems like, “Why are we doing this?” But when you actually get into it, it just gets a lot of energy moving in the team, so that when we start talking we get more out of our retrospectives.

It’s like the idea of at the beginning of a retrospective. If you get everybody in the room to say one word, there’s a much better chance of quiet people speaking up, and everyone’s being more heard. And I think that to an even greater extent when you play these games, because it ends up making them fun and energizing them and such.

And then just taking the yes-and approach to discussions with your team, as opposed to shooting their ideas down, talking more about them, trying to move them forward in a collaborative way.

Craig: And when you do those icebreaker sessions, do you just pick something generic to icebreak with? Is that how you -- There are certain exercises that you can use, and actually Paul Goddard just came out with a great book on improv in Agile that would be worth checking out. And it’s got a bunch of those exercises built in there. If you would just like to Google lightning games, or improv lightning games, there’s a whole dictionary of these things, hundreds of them online so you can pick from them and just use one of those.

Now, I’ll warn you that some teams love this. And other teams think, even after trying them that they’re a little silly and they don’t want to partake in them. I recommend doing them a few times to see how your team feels about them. Most teams, when you present it to them, if you don’t just try it and you present it to them, they will think you’re crazy and look at you a little weird. But you say, “Let’s just try it. If we don’t like it, we don’t use them again.” And most teams, I found, really love them. A few teams would prefer to do something else, in which case, ask everybody what they’re favorite breakfast food is and you’ll get everyone talking as well.


7. Excellent. So what about the magic side of that then? Is it the same type of idea?

Sort of. I guess I should make a confession first. My first job ever was as a magician. I was a geeky magician kid. And I would do magic shows for birthday parties and such, starting at 10, 12, something like that. So my first job, my first career I guess, was as a magician and so I’ve always loved stuff for magic.

And what we do in the workshop is I actually take a video of this magician called Slydini. He’s back in the ‘70s, and he does this amazing trick where everybody in the room knows exactly how the trick works except for the one person sitting in the chair. And we dissect that trick, and I take people through those steps. And the whole reason for it is it’s all about focus and misdirection, and I relate it to retrospectives.

If you just focus on the thing that you think went poorly this sprint, you’re going to keep steering your whole team in the direction of things that did not go well. What would be more useful is to focus on where you actually want to go to, and so I relate that back to retrospectives and to Agile approaches in general. So I use it just to illustrate that point.

Craig: This is something -- unlike the improv game which you can run. Is that something you can only use once, because you’re trying to make a point? Or, can you use it multiple times against the –

The misdirection you mean?

Craig: Yes.

I think that as a value or as a principle, it’s very useful. To focus on a place you’d like to go, not the place you’ve been and don’t want to be anymore. And there’s a bunch of retrospective approaches that take that tact. So I wouldn’t use the actual magic trick probably with my team, but it’s useful for highlighting that idea.

Craig: I guess it’s something you can use as a starting point to point that out, and you can always come back to it and say, “Remember this? This is a misdirection.”



8. Excellent. And I guess the other thing you mentioned was the juxtaposition that we can use comedy, sometimes, to make light of situations. How do you approach that as a coach?

I found that court jesters way back when had a great way of being able to speak about hard truths to their kings and such via comedy. Here in the States we’ve got Jon Stewart. He can talk about hard hitting news items be it with a liberal bent, more than other people can, I think, because he puts a lot of comedy into it.

And I think the same can be said with a Scrum team. Often in Scrum teams, we talk about really difficult topics. Here’s how the work you did or did not do this sprint affected us and such. But if you do that with a little bit of lightness with like we’re all on the same boat, we want to move forward together, it can be really useful to sort of snap people out of those patterns, as opposed to being wallowing in them.

And so that’s where the Agile Adlibs really came from. And here in the States we have this thing called Madlibs, which as kids we usually play together on car trips and such. It’s a story that you don’t have all the words for there. Some blank spots, and you play with a pair with another person, and they’ll ask you for an adverb, or for a noun, or whatnot. And they’ll plug those random words into the story, and when it’s read back it ends up being hilarious because it has the wrong words in the wrong spot.

I took that idea and transformed it for retrospectives. So you get a story about a Scrum team doing their work together of some sort that will make you laugh. And the outcome after making you laugh is you answer a retrospective question, something to drive the conversation forward, so it snapped you out of your normal way of thinking. Get’s you laughing and hopefully gets you to a new solution.

Craig: So the adlibs thing, you’ve actually got some templates that folks can find on your website.

Yes, those are available on my site. It’s a pack for the entire team. Enough for a Scrum team of up to nine folks. And, I’ll be coming out with an additional one soon. I’ve got the first series, and another one should come out soon.

Craig: Other that then, is there anything in Adlibs you can do? I can imagine comedy sometimes is a little bit -- it’s like comedians. It’s all in the delivery. So someone like yourself who, I mean, you’ve been a magician, you’ve got that side, you can probably come in with a team and hit that. But I can imagine some Scrum Masters or coaches may struggle with that, because that’s not their --

Sure. It’s not their style or whatnot. Yeah. I think stuff like the Agile Adlibs helps. I think the improv games, all the lightning games really help, because even though they’re not like a joke in themselves, some of them be silly. And because of the energy they create in the room, I think people might end up laughing in a lot of cases. So I think those are helpful even if you’re not a standup comedian, or never were a magician, which is funny itself I guess. You stand a good chance of doing that with your team.


9. And do you find that then by people having fun, or I guess laughing, is that something that then helps build trust in a team? Is that something –you’ve observed?

Certainly. I think it helps trust, and it’s a huge motivator. If you’re working on a team that is not having fun together, your output will be lower than a team that enjoys working together. They shouldn’t be goofy and messing around the whole entire time, but as adults we generally don’t do that. We have some fun and then we do the hard work that we’re there for.

But certainly, the highest performing Scrum teams that I’ve worked with have just had a blast together. They do it seriously. Sometimes they’re really focused on what they’re doing. They’re in the zone. They’re very quiet. Other times, they’re joking around. It really helps move things forward. I think it’s maybe the number one thing you could do to help improve your team’s velocity is to have a healthy amount of humor, and joy, and stuff working on the team.


10. Absolutely. One of the other things that I noticed when I was searching through your website is you’ve come across this thing called “The Five Minute Journal.” And whilst that’s not something that you invented yourself. You mentioned to me before it’s something very useful as approach as a coach or a Scrum Master. You want to tell us a little bit about that?

Yes. I have traditionally been horrible at journaling. While I love the idea of journaling, in practice I just don’t do it, because --

Craig: I did go to look at your blog before this interview, and unfortunately 2012 was the last entry.

Yes. It’s true. It’s true. So I think while I come out with new things to share with the community, I put it up there. But, do I blog regularly? No. in fact, my wife who does blog regularly makes fun of me for -- she has a blog and I have a thing called the blog. But sometimes I just post stuff on it.

I love the idea behind journaling, but I never actually do it, and then I came across this thing called “The Five Minute Journal” where you spend about two and a half minutes in the morning writing down a few things. The three things you are thankful for today. So I recommend doing this right before you get out of bed. So leave it next to your bed.

You fill in the three things that you’re thankful for, and then the three things that you would like to achieve today to focus your mind on this. I think it also has a line for putting down some afformation as well, which seems like very new age California. But I found it actually very useful of things that I wanted to remind myself just a simple sentence.

You do that in the morning. And then in the evening right before you go to sleep, you write down a couple more things that help support the day. And I think that this little bit of reflection -- and the reason it’s actually doable for me, it only takes five minutes. In fact, it’s called The Five Minute Journal, but I think it actually takes 3 or 4, so it’s an even better deal than that.

And I found just as a coach, it has helped me immensely, because being an Agile coach is hard work. And being a Scrum Master is hard work. Being on a team is hard work. And being able to reflect on these things and make just incremental improvements everyday is amazingly helpful. That’s why we practice agility. We try to make those changes in our teams and such. And I think doing it on your own as an individual is amazingly helpful as well.

I have those up on my site now, because when I was telling people about them, I found there was only one copy on eBay for $100. So I got in touch with the publisher and got a few copies, so they’re available on my site. And I’m sure you can find them elsewhere, but I’ve a small stock of them.


11. And it was interesting when you said about the three things you’re thankful for, without getting into what you write on your particular journal. But I’m wondering, do those things change on a daily basis, or do you find repetition particularly because there’s issues? Or, perhaps the things that you are thankful for stays linear, I am just wondering how that actually works?

Well it’s a good question. It’s the one pitfall I found with it, it can become a rote thing, since we’re answering the same questions every day. I found that you could definitely fall into the trap of, “I’m happy that I had ice cream today.”

Craig: I’m breathing.

Yes. I will say that some days this exercise is really easy, and you can think of a million things. You don’t know how to cut it down to three things. And then on days that are harder than that, sometime you write down I’m breathing, which for that day it might’ve been a great accomplishment.

Did I repeat stuff? I didn’t go back and audit it, but I noticed myself catching these patterns and being interested about those, and trying to figure out a way to keep it more alive as opposed to becoming this rote thing that I just fill in.

Craig: I think the interesting thing as coaches, we often spend a lot of time with our teams tealling them about how to retrospect and coaching them through the retrospection. But a coach is a very solo job a lot of the time, and I like this because it’s something that it forces you to retrospect as a coach.


Craig: But it doesn’t take a lot of time away from the time you really need to be spending with it.

Right. It’s only five minutes. If you don’t have five minutes, you’re probably doing something wrong, I suspect.

Craig: Excellent. And if you want to remember to do it, you just find your app, Update the Card Wall…

There you go, and it reminds you.


12. Except to update the journal. It’d be a risk for me not to mention you’re wearing a t-shirt that’s got some funny arrows, and things on there. So this is another thing you’ve been up to?

I am. Yeah. So while on my honeymoon -- I got married last year and had an extended honeymoon. I couldn’t keep myself from working a little bit, and so I ended up working on this project called the Agile Threads. And I’ve got maybe 5 or 6 different Agile t-shirts now. I’ve got a people over process one that looks like a propaganda poster that I quite like. I’ve got pair programming which is a pear programming.

Craig: Yes, that’s hilarious.

I’ve got the Vanilla Ice shirt, which has got Vanilla Ice’s photo. Well, a silhouette on the front and it says “Agilist” underneath it. On the back it says, “Stop, collaborate, and listen.” So I’ve just got a few silly things that I put up there just for fun. So there’s 4 or 5 shirts up there.

Craig: Oh, that’s awesome. And so people can order it from --

On my website as well, yeah.

Craig: From the website. And thinking more of those to come over, overtime? [0:18:58]

It’s possible, yeah. We will see. It’s a little side pet project, so if I get inspired I will come out with another one. Yeah, quite possibly.

Craig: Excellent. And the other thing I was looking through there -- well firstly, you do a monthly webinar and I guess some of the things you talk about in those webinars is you talk about has your team has fallen out of love with Scrum. I really love that idea, because sometimes you get a Scrum team they’re all, “Yeah, let’s go Scrum!” And then overtime it just becomes the process, and less about the individuals. So tell us a little bit about that.

Yes. So at the beginning of the year, after my long honeymoon, I had a webinar called “the honeymoon is over.” And I’ve noticed it is a pretty distinct pattern. People get really excited about taking their Certified Scrum Master course, and they take it back to their team, and they’re very excited, and rah, rah for the first sprint or two.

And then they start bumping up against organizational impediments, team impediments. They have to start doing the hard work of actually doing Scrum. It’s very easy to go to a two-day course. It’s very easy to learn the Scrum framework well enough to teach to somebody else. It’s not so easy to instill the cultural change that needs to take place. And so that webinar was all about those questions. And people, those questions just flooded in. I think it’s a very common spot for people to be in.

And I started the webinar because, while I’m happy to answer emails and such from my past students, or someone who comes across my website. I was finding I wasn’t getting through very many of those. I wanted to answer them in some sort of more of a conversational format, and so I started the webinar.


13. Was there a common question, or a common thread you were seeing as people were asking their question?

Well honestly, I saw a bunch of the Agile Antipatterns. Those come up as questions quite often. I don’t know if there was one single thing. I guess I could go through all the questions and find out. But definitely some very common patterns, some very simple which basically their question ends up encapsulating that they’re not actually doing Scrum. Their organization got excited about it. They liked some of the words or whatnot. But now that they go to practice it, they realize it’s more difficult than just following a few words.

Craig: And so, I guess, leading from this we’re just talking earlier is that the fact that you can’t write a blog, and the fact that you had lots of people coming through with questions. You’re now launching a podcast to answer all these questions all about Agile Answers.

Yes. So I’ve started Agile Answers which will launch at the end of the month. So maybe by the time this is live it’ll be there. And it’s a weekly podcast where I answer a question that somebody’s recorded through this fancy little widget that is on the website.

So they ask the question, I give a practical answer. Not just some answer that, “Hey! If you’re doing Scrum in the best conditions under the best possible circumstances, you’d be able to do this easily.” It goes from wherever their question currently is to how to move forward from there.

And while I absolutely love longer podcasts like, Agile Revolution, great podcast. I don’t always have time to listen to a 40, 50 minute podcast. When I do, I love to. But this podcast is just about ten minutes an episode. So you get these little actionable chunks of information that you can take back and help your team move forward with.

People can go to and submit questions there, and possibly get them answered on podcast. And from time to time I have guests on as well. And while it hasn’t launched yet, we have a couple already recorded so it’ll be ready to go out the gate.

Craig: Excellent. And what sort of questions are you expecting from folks? Are you expecting people who are just on Scrum teams, or perhaps more advanced questions? Is there a limit or --

There is no limit, other than I’m going to try to limit the episodes to ten minutes. So the only, I think, potentially downside is when somebody calls in and leaves a question, since I can’t talk with them real time. I have to make a decent amount of assumptions based on all my experience hearing about patterns in the past, I can make some reasonable guesses.

But I always flag that as, well, I’m going to make an assumption here, so apply it if it works for you or not. So I think anyone listening will get little bits of information that will help them move forward.


14. We’re here at the Agile conference where we network with our peers, and we see things. What sort of things, Adam, are you looking at in the Agile community over the next year or so, things that have your attention?

That’s a good question. What has my attention? Since I am very into it at the moment, I am looking for things that help teams have fun while doing serious work. I love games that help your team move forward. Like, Steve Bockman has a book called Practical Estimation, which is his team estimation game. It’s a Kindle $0.99 book or whatnot.

I love that game because it makes estimation simple. You have fun, and you come up with both your scale for sizing these things. And more importantly, you have the proper conversations you need to have about these. And so I’m always looking for tools that trick you a little bit like, “This is fun and we’re making progress with this thing.” And then before you know it, the outcome is work completed. I hope that the Agile Adlibs helps you do that, and I’m always looking for other tools that do the same.


15. Well, as we said before, you’re an Agile Scrum Coach and Trainer. So if people want to know more about you and the courses you have, and the teams you help, where can they find out more information?

They can go to and it’s all listed there on the site, along with all the silly products we just talked about. And a bunch of free downloads as well.

Craig: Excellent. Well, great to see you again Adam.

Thanks for having me.

Craig: And you enjoy the rest of the conference.

Thank you. You too.

Nov 01, 2015