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Incorporating Improv into Agile with Games

| by Ben Linders Follow 25 Followers on May 31, 2018. Estimated reading time: 4 minutes |

The rules of Improv provide a short-hand to enhance active listening, collaboration, and mutual reinforcement skills, all of which are integral to Agility. You can incorporate Improv activities and games to reinforce Agile mindset. As with any activity, the game debrief is where the value of the game becomes sustainable, as it explicitly ties emotions and aha-moments from the game experience to potentially parallel working scenarios.

Leila Rao, enterprise lean-agile coach, spoke about the Improv of Agile at the Agile Games conference 2018. InfoQ is covering this event with Q&As and articles.

InfoQ spoke with Rao about the four rules of improv and how to apply them for adopting agile, the power of using "yes, and", and practicing games in the workplace.

InfoQ: What are the "four rules of improv"?

Leila Rao: The four rules of improv from Tina Fey’s book "Bossypants" are:

  1. Say Yes
  2. Yes, And
  3. Make Statements
  4. No Mistakes, Only Opportunities

InfoQ: How do you apply these rules for adopting agile in organisations?

Rao: So much of applying agile in complex organizations is about cultivating the agile mindset for all individuals, to the point where it becomes part of the organizational DNA. And that’s where the four rules of improv come in -- they are an effective short-hand to enhance the kind of active listening, collaboration, mutual reinforcement skills needed to be agile.

It’s about cultivating and practicing deliberate acts of collaboration until it does become second nature. Obviously, coaches and Scrum masters work towards developing the Agile mindset with their clients and teams, and deliberately applying these rules can be one avenue towards that mindset shift.

InfoQ: What’s the power of using "yes, and"?

Rao: The power of using "yes, and" is multi-faceted. At its core, in order to agree and build upon what someone else said, you first have to listen! So it is one thing to say in a sprint planning session, please listen to each other; it is considerably more powerful to say, please apply the principle of "yes, and". The shift from reminding people about childhood basics versus reminding people that they are engaged in complex work that requires active listening and collaboration. When applied regularly, the "yes, and" principle reinforces a sense of "team", i.e. a chorus of creative voices can create more complex music than any of them can do individually.

Applied can mean verbal prompts from team members to each other and/or it can be part of a team’s working agreement and/or it can be a visual prompt with one or more rules visualized on a poster that hangs in meeting rooms or team war rooms. Multiple avenues of application are a good thing when it comes to incorporating the four rules of improv.

InfoQ: Games are used at conferences or in training to experiment and practice. How can we do something similar at the workplace?

Rao: The three core principles of applying games in the workplace are:

  1. Be Authentic
  2. Find Opportunities
  3. Focus on the Debrief

Find games that resonate with you, that you enjoy. More than most other agile techniques, so much about applying games comes down to the authenticity of the facilitator. If you are comfortable with the structure of a game and believe it has value, then you’ll be able to get people to buy in more effectively.

Be open to opportunities to introduce games. Most agile teams already use at least one game -- planning poker. A quick five-minute game to open or close a retrospective is an easy place to start. But there is really no limit to when and how you can use games in the workplace. I have used games to teach a day-long class, and that too for a federal government client!

Games are almost always fun and get people into a refreshed mindset, but the debrief is where the value of the game becomes sustainable, in that it explicitly ties emotions and aha-moments from the game experience to potentially parallel working scenarios. And this is totally unique to each context and each facilitator, so there’s no formula but think about how and why you’re using the game and help the players also make the connection, explicitly. The resulting paradigm shift can create and sustain behavioral change.

InfoQ: If people want to learn more about playing serious games, where can they go?

Rao: I don’t know of any specific fora, not really being a social media person. But I’m more of a book person, so here are some books specifically on applying the insights of improv:

  • Improving Agile Teams by Paul Goddard
  • Ctrl-Shift by Mike Bonifer‎ and Jessie Shternshus
  • Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up by Patricia Ryan Madson
  • Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses "No, But" . Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration by Kelly Leonard and‎ Tom Yorton

Sivasailam "Thiagi" Thiagarajan is a industry-leading game designer whose book "Design Your Own Games and Activities: Thiagi’s Templates for Performance Improvement is a brilliant way to learn to create your own activities and games.

Game Frame by Aaron Dignan breaks down the structure and format of games, specifically video games, but is an awesome resource for aspiring game designers.

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