Fostering Agile Culture Using the Improv Handbook


April 9, 2020



Last fall, the Levvel Project Management Office (PMO) attended the Southern Fried Agile Conference in Charlotte, NC. It was encouraging to be around so many colleagues working towards the shared goal of agility. These types of gatherings and the conversations that happen in them always remind me that while our goals may be primarily the same, our methods may vary considerably (and that’s OK!). It is, in fact, a great reminder that a strong agile culture may look different at a process level while still wholly embodying agile values.

At the conference, I strongly resonated with an idea presented in Dave West’s (CEO of closing keynote; West emphasized the importance of creating a culture of “Yes, and” within efforts to scale agility. “Yes, and,” as opposed to “Yes, but,” drives conversation, collaboration, and propels ideas forward, creating an environment of trust and empowerment. The phrase is often a staple in improvisational settings, such as improv comedy and improvised musical compositions. The idea is that a team member, whether they be a performer, a musician, or another contributor, can “suggest” a move for the group, and a fellow group member would validate (“yes”) and heighten (“and”).

This made me wonder if the basic ideas of improvising within a group could be applied to creating a strong agile company culture. What could we, in our agility efforts, learn from the tenets of improvisation? If you’ll humor me, I’d like to lay out a few rules of group improvisation and how they can be applied in an agile setting. After all, improvisation doesn’t mean there are no rules or guidelines, but the ones that do exist serve to provide order and facilitate a setting where “magic” can be made. At the end of the day, the magic that comes from people creating together in the moment: that’s the point, isn’t it?

Whether it’s a comedy troupe bringing all their call-backs and thematic moves to a hilarious crescendo, a band taking off from a musical launchpad and composing a completely new song in a live setting, or an organization valuing experimentation over prescription and creating processes that align to its own business environment or individual employees’ experiences and realities, these guidelines of group improvisation can enable that magic.

Listen to Each Other

“If you’re not listening, you’re not playing” - Trey Anastasio of Phish

To successfully improvise within a group, all the members must listen to each other. In an organization’s transformation effort, an early step must be to ensure that all individual contributors are given an avenue to voice their ideas based on their own experiences. Too often, agile efforts fail because one tier of an organization is making decisions in a vacuum that are fed by incorrect assumptions. What’s worse, the people or teams that can remove the risk of an erroneous assumption are often a short walk, a message, or an elevator’s ride away.

So how can larger organizations ensure that all voices are heard? A couple of strategies could be to hold a town hall, have managers ask questions within one-on-one’s about individual employees’ day-to-day obstacles or ideas, or construct an anonymous survey. In my experience, it’s common for organizations to communicate the concerns and responsibilities of leadership, but what if that communication went both ways? In a healthy Agile culture, the concerns and obstacles of those at every level of the organization must be out in the open if they are truly going to be addressed.

Whether you are implementing Agile methodologies, scaling agile, or just simply keeping things fresh with process tweaks, you’ll need information that gives at least a holistic “glimpse” into your organization’s situation. We can probably agree that quality data contributes to quality decision making, and without downplaying the benefit of an outside assessment, it is likely that the best data for these decisions will come from first making sure everyone has a voice and then listening to what those voices have to say.

Know When to Step Up or Sit Back

“The right choice is often the bravest choice” - Will Hines of Upright Citizens Brigade

Another tenet of good improv is an evolved awareness of knowing when to act or sit back, or when to support a teammate’s leadership or to lead the group yourself. I have been a performer on an improv comedy team for a few years, and I have found myself paralyzed on the back wall more than a few times. In those situations, it’s not that I’m scared to jump in, or don’t have an idea to add to a scene or start a new one, it’s that I’m unsure whether to trust my own experience or idea within that moment over a teammate that likely also has an idea or intended move for the group.

If I didn’t think there was a crossover between my feelings in that situation and how people, myself included, can feel when they are in the process-improvement trenches, I wouldn’t have written this post. Whether you are in executive leadership, management, or a “doer” in your organization, there will be times to speak up and take the lead, offering your own ideas from your own work experiences, and times where you need to sit back and let someone else move the group forward.

Depending on your personality or role, this may take some bravery on your part, but if “the right choice is often the bravest choice,” the health of your organization (and your experience working within) may depend on it.

Have Each Other’s Backs

“I’ve got your back” - Unknown

A common practice before improv teams go on stage is for every team member to tell each other that they have each other’s backs. When improvisers do this, it’s in a collective understanding that we are all in this together and that our success comes as a unit. I’ve often seen mantras in different organizations that involve some theme of winning as one, but a clear-headed Agilist must understand that this is easier “said than done” and requires a commitment to not unfairly burden one group or team to achieve a stated goal.

Unskilled or new improvisers sometimes fall into the trap of throwing a scene partner under the bus by either ignoring or not complying with their choices (not using “Yes, and…”), or by making a joke at their expense. I’m sure many of us have likewise been in situations where one team or individual bears undue weight in the development lifecycle. This kind of scenario presents an opportunity for improvement and can help identify where effort can go to address kinks in a process or software development pipeline.

Thankfully, Agile methodologies provide multiple opportunities to support collaboration and truly “win as one”. One of my favorite examples of this is the end-of-sprint Sprint Review ceremony. When successful, this ceremony allows the scrum team to present their sprint output to the key business stakeholders that they may not interact with on a day-to-day basis, and, in turn, allow the stakeholders to ask questions and weigh in on how the sprint increment fits into the big picture for the organization. The Sprint Review is a reminder of the symbiotic relationship present within an agile culture, with the healthiest agile cultures buying into the mindset that success is impossible to achieve without organizational unity.

It is important to utilize the opportunities provided by agile methodologies to create a culture of having each other’s backs, because collective wins have the power to create lasting change, and even if they don’t, it’s much easier to bounce back as a group when you know you can trust your teammates.

“Magic” is Possible

I hope that these parallels have created some room for introspection into your own Agile initiatives. Earlier, I used the word “magic” to describe what happens when improvisation is successful, and to me, that is the best word to describe what happens when discipline, accountability, and creativity all come together and produce outcomes that may seem impossible at the start. Furthermore, these outcomes often stick with people because they remember that time where something was created out of perceived “nothing.”

No matter an organization’s agile maturity, I hope the takeaway here is that there is more magic to be created when individuality is celebrated, bravery is rewarded and not punished, and people have each other’s backs.

Authored By

Colby Martin, Project Management Consultant

Colby Martin

Project Management Consultant

Meet our Experts

Colby Martin, Project Management Consultant

Colby Martin

Project Management Consultant

Colby is an Agilist and project manager focused on promoting healthy and efficient working environments. He primarily acts as a Scrum Master for Levvel projects, and has worked to achieve client success in the fields of Banking, FinTech, and Defense, among others. Outside of work, he enjoys music, comedy, and exploring the world with his wife and baby daughter.

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