I got a valuable gift at Agile Open California during a workshop on Improvisational Comedy. Improv is all about collaboration. Many of the basic lessons of improv are applicable to Agile teaming, facilitation and coaching. It is essential to support your fellow actors with positive, energy-building language and actions. And you have to react quickly with your whole mind and body. There is no time for analysis. Well, maybe that last one is not entirely applicable to software development – even the Agile approach – but the idea of spontaneous creativity from group interaction certainly applies to software.

I took an Improv workshop at Agile2008 and really enjoyed it. I have been looking forward to a chance to do it again. This session was led by Todd Sedano from Carnegie Mellon. We did a number of cool things. I wanted to share one in particular because it was simple and, for me, powerful. It was called Gift Giving.

giftbox_giants_300“I have given you a box. It is wrapped and has a gift inside. Take it, lift it, examine it. Now tell us what you find.”

We had a moment to look over our invisible boxes. One-by-one we described our boxes and the gifts inside. Mine was white with a black and orange ribbon. Inside was a Willie Mays autographed baseball glove and a can of neatsfoot oil. While the other people in the session were describing their boxes, I took out my glove and began pounding it quietly to soften it. I was having memories of childhood, when a new glove was a rare treasure. Back in the day I would spend hours working in neatsfoot oil to keep my glove soft. It was a special aroma, the oil and the leather.

What brought that image to mind? It must have had something to do with being in San Francisco and having seen a few Giant’s games this year. Doesn’t matter. It was fun.

The real gift, though, came from what Todd said about how he uses the exercise. Whenever he goes in to a consulting engagement, rather than feeling uncertain about meeting the unknown challenge ahead, he pictures a Gift Box waiting for him. He anticipates that the job will have something for him beyond what is written into the contract.

And so it is with Agile Coaching. We go into an engagement with our toolkit ready, but we never know for sure what we will find. It is easy to feel some concern that we might encounter something outside of our experience. This is not unreasonable – every place is unique, every person is unique, every team is unique. So it takes trust in our skills to go in with confidence that the job can be done before knowing for sure what the job is. Believing that the job will also have a gift for us, and not knowing what that gift is, makes the job all that more interesting. And it can help increase our confidence. Each engagement brings new learning, honing of skills and broadening of horizons. All of that makes us better at what we do and more valuable to our customers.

So now when I step into a coaching situation, part of my preparation is to wonder “What gift will be waiting for me here?”


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The Gift Box

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