Collaboration is fundamental to successful agile projects. A team of people working together toward a shared goal will create a different product than a group of individuals working alone on parallel assignments to be integrated later. Collaboration supplies automatic load balancing, constant discussion and generation of new ideas and communication on the status of the work. A goal for successful agile practice is to foster collaboration in the team. There is much in the literature about how to do this, nicely summed up in Jean Tabaka’s great book,Collaboration Explained.

One important skill of an agile coach is understanding how collaboration works and how to make it work better. In my steady pursuit of useful skills, I did something at Agile2008 that I have been wanting to do for a long time – participate in collaborative training in something other than software development. This is not to say that I have never collaborated on anything. I do that all the time in many life activities. But I have never had explicit training in how to be a good collaborator – at least since I learned what that meant.

The training was in the form of a workshop in improvisational comedy. How am I so lucky that I can do such a thing in the course of my day job, you may wonder? Not just lucky. I worked hard to get where I am today. If you have had basic Scrum training, you may have experienced the “Yes, and” exercise where we see the difference in supportive energy that happens between the traditional response to ideas “No, we can’t do that” or “But that won’t work” and the more collaborative response of “Yes, and we could also add this to it”. When I first witnessed this exercise, I recognized it as a core rule of improv – always support your partners in the story. I had learned of this from performers in my family and their performing friends.

So I took the workshop, led by Michael Bolton and Adam White. It was great fun, of course. Yes, and I also learned a lot. Here are some of the things that are relevant to agile teaming.

  • Pay attention to what is happening around you so that you can respond quickly and appropriately
  • Your job is to make your partner successful, not to be the star of the show
  • Never respond with a question; it robs your partner of power (relates to the topic of “powerful questions”)
  • Do not confuse a character with the person playing it (support the partner though your character can be critical of the partner’s character – e.g. I can disagree with your design proposal and still admire your skill as a designer)
  • Do whatever you can to make the scene successful
  • Don’t be too rough, physically – I’m not sure how well that relates, but it was something I learned early on.
  • Exagerate physical motion to enhance the story == be animated and make active contributions

Do what you will with this list. My main advice is to take an improv workshop. It is a great lesson in thinking on your feet, working with an ensemble of people for a common goal, supporting your partners and having fun.

What I wanted to really talk about, however, was something else.

As Agile 2008 was winding down, a lightbulb went off in my head. * I have had other similar experiences in collaboration. * One happened at the conference in a different venue. There was this wonderful room full of musical instruments. Anyone who wanted to pick one up and play was free to do so. Since there were several and there were usually people in the room, that mainly meant strangers playing together. I play solo a lot and with one or two people often, but I had never played in a band like this. My first encounter with a handful of musicians was a blues jam. I was nervous but there was no audience at the time. And the others were supportive. It did not take long to get comfortable with the way that people make music together – a different kind of improvisation. I knew a couple of people in the group and others were strangers. We still managed to pick a song, choose a key and go – trading solos among instruments and performers with nothing more than a nod of the head. It was great fun. And I think it sounded pretty good, too. 

On the last night of Agile2008 there was a “concert/dance” in the music room. Random people joined in the band and made music. Many had never played together. Many had probably never performed in public before. And yet it was real music, apparently good enough to dance to. People with diverse skills and knowledge (and talent) came together with minimal verbal communication and created fun. All it took was a little bit of courage and some decent tools. I suppose we could have made music with pots and pans, but the dancing was better with electric guitars, keyboard and drums. I did not mean to allude to the whole agile tool discussion.

Is that all? No. I play pickup basketball. I only play at one place now but there was a time when I could drop in on any of five different gyms in my town and join a game. It is much the same. A group of people, some you know and some you may not, get together in a space where the rules are known and the goals are clear. Sometimes it is just a ragtag workout – run and shoot. Sometines it is a thing of beauty where your team of the moment magically works like a well-oiled machine. The latter is rare, but oh so wonderful when it happens. Most of the time it is still good, especially when people follow those improv rules like making your teammates look good, paying constant attention to what is going on around you and avoiding heroics. Oh, and you get to be physical in this one.

There they are, three collaborative endeavors that I know of outside of software development: comedy improvisation, music jams and pickup basketball. There are others, for sure. But these are part of my recent life so I thought I would play a riff on them and see if it turns on any more lightbulbs.

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Collaborative Endeavors
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