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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Talking Improv at Agile 2012 with Kupe Kupersmith

Talking Improv at Agile 2012 with Kupe Kupersmith


1. My name is Todd Charron, I am an Agile editor at InfoQ, and I am joined here today by Kupe Kupersmith, president of B2T Training. So you are one of the speakers and presenters at Agile 2012, first to kick us off, tell us a little bit about yourself.

My background is I was an accounting major in college, took an accounting job out of school and was bored to tears. One of the ways I got out of my boredom was I started to do some standup comedy and improv comedy and then transitioned my way into software development space, say subject matter expert, people soft applications, so I became a business analyst, supporting the financial application people soft, was a PM for a little while, and then I expended outside of people soft and really fell back into the business analyst role. In 2006 I joined B2T Training, which is a learning and development company focused on transforming how companies do business analysis and requirements and since we are in the training business I kind of turned around and figured out a way to bring the excitement I had with improv into business analysis training.

Todd: Excellent. And so, you are bringing improv to Agile 2012.


Todd: So, tell us a little bit about your session.

It went really well, I had a good group, about 65 people or so, and we focused on improv skills that make people better team players, collaborators and communicators. And so I did about six different improv exercises, some were games that we would actually play on stage, others were just exercises that we did to be better improvisers.


2. Why do you think improv is so important for companies in general?

I think it definitely fits with everybody, companies, individuals in general. The key to improv is being able to communicate better, being a better team player. So, some of the keys in improv are focus on being in the moment, so active listening is key when you are doing improv, there is no script so it’s really important for individuals to be focused on the other actor, know what they are saying and only respond to what is said so it would make some sense. So on stage that makes perfect sense, but it also makes sense in one on one interactions or group interactions when you are a business professional, to really listen to what somebody is saying and only react to what they are saying.


3. What’s the difference between just listening and active listening? What’s the difference there?

I think the active listening part is clearing out all your filters. A lot of people go into conversations, interviews, meetings with preconceived notions, what’s going to happen, what they want to happen. So, you can listen to somebody and hear them, hear what they’re saying but then only respond to the way you wanted to respond, so active listening is really listening to what that person said and the active part is almost in your response, so what you are responding to is what you actually heard and only that.


4. What makes improv such a good fit for Agile?

You know, Agile teams and software development has been going on for years and years and years, but the Agile movement has brought teams closer together and instead of there being silos and roles there’s now a team, just like there is a team in improv, there’s a troop, there’s a group in improv that have to work together, trust each other and collaborate to get to the end goal. So, improv is about, and I talked about this yesterday, improv is all about taking an idea and making it good, so taking an idea from one point and everybody contributing in some form or fashion to finally getting to that end result and that’s the same thing that’s happening on Agile teams. Teams are coming together, everybody has different skill sets, they have a goal, whether it’s the whole program or an individual sprint, whatever that is, coming together to kind of work that together and get to the end result.


5. So, we’re going to back up a second, I just realized some of our viewers may not be familiar, what really is improv? Let’s start with that, let’s clarify that.

So, improv is what we are doing today. It’s being in the moment, being spontaneous, reacting to only what you are seeing and being responsive. So, improv at its core is things that we do every single day. A lot of people when they think about improv, they think comedy. That’s one thing I brought up yesterday, as part of the workshop, don’t try to be funny. Because that’s what people think “oh, improv, I have to be funny”. And that’s really not improv, the comedy comes, but improv is truly about working with other people to get to an end goal and doing that in a way that you are really listening and responding and keeping an open mind and responding to what you are seeing in the moment.


6. At improv what happens you mentioned one of the things is don’t try to be funny, what are the consequences that people run into when they try to be funny, or try to be clever?

Well, when you try to be funny or try to be clever then you’re not responsive and not spontaneous, because ultimately you probably think “Oh, I’m going to say this, people might not think it’s funny, let me not say it and hold it back”. Same thing with being clever. And this is the same thing in the meetings that we are in, when we’re in team meetings, people that think “Well, my idea really doesn’t make sense, nobody is going to like my idea” then they will stop and they won’t share that idea. So trying to be funny in improv is the same thing, if you’re trying to get the punch line and it doesn’t really click or you might not think it’s going to click, you hold back and don’t share your idea rather than build up to that crescendo. And it’s the same thing on our teams, as we are sharing information, it’s better to, whatever you just heard and something comes to mind, get it out, because that may not be the end result but what it can be is a spark to somebody else to get another idea to continue working up to making that good idea.


7. You mentioned just briefly about building on ideas and I know in your session you kind of covered the idea from improv “yes, and...”, so maybe you can explain that a little bit for us?

So, “yes, and...” is a game, in improv there is no denying, the concept of no denying because as soon as you deny somebody on stage that kind of ends the conversation. So the example I used in class yesterday was if I was on stage with someone and they would come in, like you would come in, Todd, and say “hey, Kupe, I love your yellow clown outfit” and I say “I don’t have a yellow clown outfit, I have a polo shirt on”, what does that do? That kills the scene, it puts all the pressure back on the other person to try another idea rather than building on, accepting what that person said and continuing. So, with “yes, and...” it's an exercise that we use to get in habit of not denying somebody but taking, accepting what they said and continuing that conversation.


8. So, how do people represent “yes, and...” in the business world versus the opposite of “yes, and...”?

So, in the business world, I talked about this, you are not going to have conversations like this, so the improv game is one person says a sentence the other person says “yes, and...” and then continues, and it goes back and forth in that manner. So, you don’t have conversations like that in real life but what it is, is an attitude, and yesterday I talked about it’s an improv attitude, it’s the improv mindset that you want to have. So, the “yes, and...” attitude is truly taking what somebody says and accepting that as if that is a real thing to them and even if you disagree, that comes up a lot “what if you really don’t agree with that person, why would you say yes?” You don’t have to agree with somebody, you can disagree with someone, but it is accepting what they are saying and validating that that is real to that person and then adding your thoughts. And maybe have a discussion around that disagreement rather than if you said something to me, Todd, you get the eye rolls and “oh, that’s the stupidest idea I heard, this is actually what we should be doing”, what does that do to that relationship? It kills it, I mean nobody wants to feel, even if their idea is not the one that gets accepted in the end, but that their idea is dumb or stupid or not qualified. So the “yes, and...” attitude is accepting everybody’s thoughts and you can have disagreements in a nice way without denying somebody and making them defensive.


9. You also talked about the improv mindset a little bit. So, how is that mindset different than what you might see in other large organizations or general business practices?

Well, I would say the big area where improv plays a role and the mindset plays a role is when there is disagreement. And I think there is multiple levels of disagreement that can happen in an organization and there’s the no disagreement where a leaders says something and everybody just gets in line and does what that leaders says and that’s not positive and there’s the nasty disagreement and I think that’s the politics side, where people try to twist things and twist the conversation to get their way and there’s the healthy conflict and good disagreement where people can share ideas and know they are after the same goal and trust each other and be ok with not getting their idea to the top. And I think that’s what it is, it’s being ok with putting your input in, somebody is going to take that and do something with it, bring it back out and that might not be the direction you are going to go, but taking that and continuing. So, it’s really like a trust, the big thing in improv is building trust with the team and knowing that everybody has got your back and it’s not going to hang you out there and make you look like a fool on stage, and it’s the same thing in business, I think the politics side of business, that’s what’s happening, people don’t trust each other, they want to get their way, they want to get their point across and it doesn’t really help, it doesn’t build a good team atmosphere.


10. How does that mindset compare to say an Agile mindset versus a traditional business mindset?

Well, I think it’s what the Agile mindset should be, the Agile mindset should be “we’re a team, we have a goal, we have to accomplish it, let’s work with each other to accomplish that goal and let’s hold each other accountable for getting there.”

Todd: And so you find that improv is a good way to get that mindset?

Yes. Right.


11. So with your organization you teach a lot of people about improv. So, what sort of challenges do you face going into organizations that are probably not even thinking about improv as a way to help themselves?

Yes, I don’t think anybody is out there struggling with team dynamics and saying “oh, let me see, where can I get some improv training today?” that’s not the first thing that comes to mind. Two things I noticed, people are not sure how improv is going to help them in their daily life. Again, they think improv is acting and comedy, so the struggle I have is convincing people that these skills, it’s not like you are going to go out and do a lot of the techniques or the exercises we do in class, you might do some of them as icebreakers and team building exercises, but in your daily life you are not going to be doing these exercises, a lot of other training classes you go learn how to write user stories and other analysis skills that you can learn, whatever it is, BPMN, any of these techniques people know “ok, I can take that and use that on my job” but improv, it’s the mindset, it’s the attitude that comes out of it. So convincing people that everybody needs this, whether you’re in Agile or whatever, is a little difficult.


12. What do you convey to people that is the path that they should take to getting this mindset, they’ve done a session with you today, what comes next for them?

I think with improv, what I try to do is give people the actual exercises that we are doing that they take away and I say this in the workshop, you are not going to come out of the workshop being 100% better in communication, 100% better a team player, so my thing is continue to practice these things or remember that “yes, and...” exercise when you go into a meeting that there might be some conflict. So, it’s continuing trying these exercises, I do it with my kids at home, constantly trying these exercises and keep going with that mindset, for me it comes naturally now because I performed for years and years, so it’s automatic in how I act. And that’s what people, if they want to take themselves, take their careers to the next level, they have to keep practicing this.


13. You mentioned some of the challenges of bringing into an organization. Are there any kinds of misconceptions, aside from they think it’s comedy and theatre, that people just assume that's going to come out of class, that they are going to do the class and then?

Right. That’s what I try to convey within the class, because people do struggle sometimes with “ok, we had this exercise, we are going to go over this exercise, how does it change what I do?” and I think people will benefit the most is when entire teams come to the exercise, come to the workshop. Because one of the things I get from people is “ok, I understand now how my mindset has to change but I work with these two other people and they’re these bulldogs and they just run over everybody, so what do I do?” So, one thing is let’s get everybody in the workshop, it’s not just about an individual, it’s about the team, but also as individuals we are all leaders and we can set examples in how we act. So, I tell people so you now have this improv mindset, go out and start using it, people are going to want to be on your team, they are going to want to work with you and people will start to realize that the attitude you have, the personality you have now is the one all team members want.


14. Is there any place that you can think of where people can directly apply what they’ve taken, so you’ve got these exercises, how do they bring that back to the work and really get people on board to do it enough to get that practice, to get that mindset?

I’m trying to think of specific ones, exercises that can be used. I think it’s a good practice to kick off maybe meetings, to do exercise with the whole team. There is one exercise I know, group juggle, it’s throwing balls around, the concept is to talk about team work and how individuals do their tasks and throw those over the wall fast to get rid of them and not think about how their actions on the team are impacting the other team mates. So that’s a good one, I always tell people, go back to your team and do this exercise, it'll highlight pretty quickly some of the dysfunctions you might have on your team. There’s other exercises, some of the warm up exercises I did, some of the other exercises that you can do for five, ten minutes with your team, every day or maybe once a week and just remember there is no reason you don’t have to do these with your team. I think people feel that improv is touchy feely, we have to get to work, we can’t do all this touchy feely stuff, but to me if you work on the touchy feely stuff what it does is build trust with the team, team is going to be more cohesive and be a more high performing team. So, if you take five, ten minutes a week or five, ten minutes a day to play these games and be a better team, then you are going to be a lot more productive.


15. When you do the sessions, there is a lot of interaction, at your session there’s a lot of interaction between the audience and things like that, and some people are having some pretty good “aha” moments, lighting up on certain things. What, either particularly from this session or other sessions, are kind of the key ones that you see over and over again, that people are getting that they didn’t get before your session?

Right. I think that, I hadn’t mentioned this before but I think that a lot of people think improv, in the beginning I asked what does everybody think improv is and oftentimes you get it’s no scripts, off the cuff, and that is true, there is no script and you are being spontaneous and it is off the cuff, but there is a lot of preparation that goes into improv. And with the troop I was with, we performed once or twice a week but we practiced two or three times a week. And I think as business professionals, we run into meetings without preparation. And you think you are improvising but you are actually hurting yourself because you are not prepared and the big “aha” moment when I talk to people about preparation and all the preparation that goes into improv, so if you prepare for meetings and prepare for sessions that you are going into, and interviews that you are going to have, you’re able to improvise. Because if you are prepared with almost every scenario that you can think of, you can relax and really be able to listen and focus on what is happening in that session and not try to think with the script we are going to go down this way. So, with the preparation piece is key because a lot of people are in meetings after meetings after meetings and they run from one meeting to the next and one task to the next and they don’t think about what they are going to do in that meeting. So, taking that step back to prepare is a big one that comes up.


16. […] People often have this misconception of Agile that it’s just chaos, everybody is whatever, that perhaps, you still do the preparation, but you are just improvising I guess now. So, is that something that you’ve thought about or worked with at all?

[Todd’s full question: So it’s kind of interesting, you mentioned that but I just realized that now but one of the other direct connections to Agile is coming from a world previous where everything is planned, very detailed plan step by step that people have to follow, people often have this misconception of Agile that it’s just chaos, everybody is whatever, that perhaps, you still do the preparation, but you are just improvising I guess now. So, is that something that you’ve thought about or worked with at all? ]

No, I haven’t, but that’s a good thought. People think Agile is everybody, cowboys just going crazy, it’s not. There is still an overall framework, and there is key things that have to be done and you do prepare and then you get going and kind of go with the flow. Agile and improv, there is a lot of correlation there.


17. Any other “aha” moments that you want to mention, that people have come out with from the class?

I think the overall mindset, the “yes, and…” is a big one, that people don’t even realize how they’ve been judging other people. I won’t say her name but there was even a person yesterday in the session that after we did this exercise she said “well, what if someone actually had a dumb idea?” and she, in my opinion, didn’t necessarily get the concept of “yes, and…” because what she was doing, you might think that what she did was virtually judge that person’s idea. A lot of people come out of that exercise, these improv sessions being “oh, wow, I need to be more open, I need to be more accepting of what other people are saying and more accepting of their view point, to be able to build upon that rather than, if I don’t agree with someone that doesn’t mean it’s weird or dumb idea, it’s just a different idea and what are you going to do”. So, that’s a big one, people kind of take a step back and do a little introspective on themselves and realize “wow, I’m pretty judging of other people” and that’s not helpful when you’re on a team.


18. So, you were talking about “yes, and…” and people are kind of struggling with that a little bit. One of the things you mentioned and maybe you can go into a bit more detail about that was it’s not just “yes, and…” or no, some people often do “yes, but…” Can you tell us a little more about that?

That usually comes up, someone says “yes, but…” and that’s a nice way of saying no. When you just say “yes, but…” it’s almost like “I heard you, but that’s not a great idea, here is what we really need to be doing”. People miss the concept if they are thinking “yes, but…” is acceptable, almost the yes gets tossed away to the side pretty quickly, when you say but it’s like “hey, Todd, you did a great job yesterday, but...” So, what is “doing a great job yesterday”, what does that really mean, if you are getting to the core that there is going to be a problem here.


19. So, for people who are taking your sessions, have been practicing and they have the improv mindset, they are doing a lot of “yes, and…”, how can they address the people who have the “yes, but…” or a very narrow mindset? How can they work into building that collaboration?

I think it’s back to setting examples. So, somebody who doesn’t have that mindset they are not seeing it, you as an individual have to have that attitude and people are going to realize pretty quickly that they’d rather work with someone that has this attitude than this other person. So, you can’t necessarily fight that person back with the disagreement, but you kill them with niceness I guess is the way, you continue with that attitude and then people are going to start doing the same thing with you. I mean that is just, I don’t have any scientific research around that, but if you have that attitude people will start realizing that’s the more positive way to approach things rather than the bulldog approach.


20. So, your company - B2T Training. What sort of things you offer as far as improv training and things like that go?

One of the class I do is around improv training but our goal out there is to help companies transform the way they do business analysis or requirements gathering or solicitation analysis. So we have a multitude of classes that fall in the analysis space as well as coaching and mentoring to help teams.


21. One thing I find from a lot of people, obviously there is feedback here at Agile 2012, but what sort of things have you learned whether from this particular session or just from doing the session that may have surprised you, that you may not have expected to learn, until you have really met with the audience?

I was surprised one, the apprehension that some people have at the beginning of class and I mentioned a little yesterday when I do, this is a large group, when I have smaller sessions I tell people “I am going to make you uncomfortable” What I like to see is at the beginning of class I tell people “we’re going to do things, we are going to get you up in front of the group, you are going to do things that are out of your comfort zone”, some people are extremely nervous; one girl, yesterday I think was, looking through her schedule to see which other session can I get to, do I still have time to get to. But then once they go through it they realize I didn’t die, it wasn’t that bad, I actually had fun, I learned something. So, it’s exciting to see people, one, come into the class, being a little nervous and not sure what is going to happen and come out with some good aha moments and excited about it. And a lot of people have come up to me and said “I’m going to take this back to my team, this was great” especially when I get some leaders in the room, they really think about how can they incorporate this with their team. So it’s really exciting that this stuff will continue as people go back to work and work with their teams.


22. For me one big thing about improv is fear, people are often very afraid of things. What in particular do you think frightens them about improv?

I think it is, we talked about the one they are trying to be funny, we talked about it earlier, so I think it’s people not knowing what’s coming at them and being afraid of how they are going to respond or even feeling that they are not going to be able to respond. I worked, there is a number of exercises, getting people comfortable with just saying what comes to mind and see what happens, and in these improv exercises we do one called answer man where there’s three people up in front of the room, the group asks answer man or answer person a question and that group has to answer the question one-word- at- a- time and it gets people a little nervous because they have a thought of what that answer is going to be and they get nervous to think if someone doesn’t go in the direction I want to answer, am I going to be able to respond? And I do a number of those types of exercises to get people comfortable with that you can respond with what comes to mind quickly and things are going to be ok. And I think it’s really just the fear of either feeling stupid or blanking out and that kind of stuff. And what I want them to do in class is almost fail in that way, to hesitate, and I make them try again and the goal is to get them over that fear in the class so that when they are with a key stakeholder or their manager or whoever it is, that they feel comfortable with responding and accepting things and responding in a moment.

Todd: One thing you mentioned was interesting about the answer man exercise is if people are afraid of coming up with a story for it, it really creates a safety net because they are only responsible for one word.

Right, you would think.

Todd: People tend to be really scared about where this is going, but they don’t have to worry about that.

Right. They are just part of the puzzle, just a piece of that.


23. Any other big learnings from this year’s session?

To me, the team work and I talk about Patrick Lencioni and his book Five Dysfunctions of The Team and I think that improv helps get teams over those dysfunctions. And I end the session that way and I do that on purpose because I want people to come out of there remembering that it’s all about team work and these improv exercises will help your team be a better team and Lencioni talks about the first thing you need for a team is trust and building trust with the team and feeling comfortable with the team. So, all these improv exercises get people, especially when you work with your team, it gets them to start accepting each other and learning from each other and being open to what somebody says and just going with that. So it starts that pattern, it gets everybody in that mindset to build trust and feel comfortable in a good space with those people. And then if you have trust, then the second level is a healthy conflict, and we talked a little bit about that already, that if you trust somebody then you are going to have some healthy conflict on your team and meaning that there are going to be disagreements, that healthy disagreement. So, Todd, if you had an idea and we trust each other we can have a good discussion back and forth while I might disagree and end up coming up with that best idea.


24. What comes next for you?

Here at the session I will probably going to get some coffee. That’s right up next. With B2T Training and the things we are doing there, so professionally, my goal is to help people take things to the next level. I write a blog, BA Times, that focuses on some of these key skills that differentiate people. So, personally and professionally with B2T Training our goal is to help groups separate themselves and be the best that they can be. So a lot of the writing I do, a lot of the talking I do, this improv session is all about differentiators. Everybody can go out and get the skills, the different techniques, different frameworks, go to Scrum training, and you need Scrum training if your team is using that to manage projects. But that’s a parity skill, you just have to know Scrum how your team uses it just enough so that you can be effective. And it’s important, but it doesn’t really separate teams, what really separates teams is the things we talked about in the improv class and the communication skills, the team work skills. So as individuals and as teams, the ones that focus on that stuff are really going to excel. So for me that is where my passion lies for everybody.

Todd: Well, thank you very much for doing this.

Thank you for having me, I really appreciate it.

Mar 05, 2013