What onstage improvisation can teach us about developing an agile mindset.
The world of high-end software engineering might seem a long way away from the average comedy club, but they have come to share something that’s become a watchword for tackling a contemporary world of work characterised by uncertainty and unpredictability. In fact, the challenges of real-time software development and the improvisation any stand-up might use to feed off an audience have more in common than we might at first think. Both mean entering an arena where there’s no established route map, no hard-and-fast step-by-step guide to what happens next. Both involve a customer base or audience they need to satisfy or please. Both need to harness every ounce of experience and expertise they have to prevail. And software developers and stand-ups alike need to deploy that core characteristic they share: agility.
The word ‘agile’ is perhaps one of the most used and abused in our business lexicon. We read constantly about agile organisations looking for appropriately agile people. But it’s sometimes hard to know exactly what we mean by it. Is it a product development and project management technique with roots in software development and encapsulated in the seminal Agile Manifesto? Has it become a more general approach to management and leadership, an antidote to traditional bureaucracy and hierarchy? Is it about different ways of working, a shorthand for everything from remote working and flexible hours to job design and who is doing the work in the first place?
The answer to all of those questions is, of course: yes. That’s because agile is not really about any one practice, process or operation. Rather, it’s an approach, a mindset, relevant not just for organisations but for individuals too. Just as those software engineers and stand-ups are masters of agility in the face of the unknown and the unknowable, pivoting as circumstances evolve and in the face of feedback and change, it’s a mindset we all need to develop if we’re to make the most of our ever-shifting working lives.
Expecting the unexpected
Max Dickins, author of Improvise! Use the Secrets of Improv to Achieve Extraordinary Results at Work, believes that techniques from onstage improvisation - “acting without a plan” - can help make our thinking, behaviours and communication more agile. He defines agility as “our capacity to flexibly and quickly respond to change”. That’s the kind of adaptability we all need as leaders, being able to handle change, juggle multiple demands and flex our style and approach as needed. Crucially, though, Dickins also expands that definition. Rather than just responding to change, agility is also about “expecting the unexpected”, accepting that things will change in ways we can’t always anticipate and developing strategies to make the most of whatever comes our way.
It’s a mindset change that can be hard. Dickins uses the analogy of moving away from seeing everything as an exam on whether we are good or clever enough and instead seeing everything as an experiment. That doesn’t mean that we’ll be “winging it” or that what we know ceases to be important. Nor does it mean that we’ll never prepare or plan for anything ever again. But it does mean acknowledging that a hard and fast plan might only take us so far (think Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”). That’s why we need to prepare to be unprepared. Then when we are (metaphorically) punched in the mouth, we’ll have the agility to marshal all of the experience and resources we have to understand, acknowledge and respond to the challenge before us.
Being able to improvise in this way, according to Dickins, is not about creating something out of nothing, but creating “something out of everything”. Just as it takes years of skill and experience to be a top stage improviser, agility is about techniques for identifying and using what we know when we need to pivot and adjust.
It’s a skill that can be especially important when dealing with complex problems which have no set playbook, when there are no obvious right answers and we may need to explore the problem and how we can resolve it as part of the problem-solving process itself. We need think no further than the perennial problem of executing even the best laid strategic plans to see the difference agility can make when it comes to making progress.
Dickins uses the example of how prototypes – whether minimum viable products (that central element of agile project management) or initial ideas – can help us articulate what we need to do and navigate those shifting sands. Prototypes naturally create what innovation guru, Michael Schrage describes as a “shared space” for communication, helping to refine and clarify our plans with colleagues and customers alike. They are also a natural focus for the feedback that’s essential to test and challenge our assumptions. Agility does not require us to come up with a perfect solution; in improv terms, we need to “bring a brick, not a cathedral”, looking for incremental change and iterating accordingly as the situation unfolds and our intelligence and experience improves.
And it’s not just those large-scale macro-trends or hard-to-define complex projects that bring us face to face with uncertainty. Every day, we face the unexpected, for good or ill: a conversation with a colleague might not go as planned; maybe we’ve received some unwelcome feedback; that big client presentation has been brought forward a week. When our plans – big and small - don’t turn out as we expect them to, the key thing is how we respond: what do we do next?
That’s when we can make use of an improvisation methodology that can help us build agility into that response: a four-stage loop Dickins calls NLDC, which stands for:
- Let go
The NLDC loop
The four stages of the NLDC loop start with the unexpected, a plan of way or operating that has come unstuck or has to change. Take, for example, that re-scheduled client presentation. Or yet another departmental reshuffle. Or maybe we’re facing an external threat, like a new competitor with a big marketing budget. It’s tempting in these circumstances to dive under the duvet and pretend all is well, but this is precisely the time that we need to be courageous and marshal that agility, to show ourselves to be flexible to changing business needs.
Bear in mind that the word ‘loop’ is no accident; we might need to cycle through the four stages more than once to arrive at the right solution or response.
The first stage in the loop is about observing what’s happened or is happening and interrogating the situation as closely as possible. If we’re going to face up to that new competitor, for example, we’d better find out everything we can about them and whet they’re offering.
Noticing is about being present in the moment, being aware of what’s going on around us and minding those cognitive biases, like confirmation bias, that might get in the way. Nor can we allow busyness, complacency or fear of what we might find to interfere.
It also takes practice. The more experienced and expert we are, the more likely we are to be able to interpret what we find and react accordingly. Involving, and collaborating, with others is also a sure-fire way of improving the intelligence we can gather in this phase.
Even the most insignificant derailers can hit us hard, but we need muster our emotional self-control to remain calm and keep our composure.
We need to surrender the current idea or plan that is no longer fit for purpose. That takes courage and flexibility, given that we’re swapping certainty for uncertainty. We’re also having to overcome the status quo bias and sunk cost fallacy that might otherwise encourage us to press ahead regardless of everything that’s telling us to change tack. But it’s a crucial stage, as it’s hard to accept the new reality until we let go of the past. We need to move from thinking “What’s missing?” or “What’s gone wrong?” to “What do I have?”
Then we can start to reframe the change as an opportunity. This will help us to overcome any fear that might be paralysing us. It’s also when the traditional improv techniques of accepting the offer and focussing on “Yes, and…” rather than “Yes, but…” come into play. It’s an approach that’s inherently collaborative, which is often essential for figuring things out when we have no ready-made plan.
Accepting the offer is about being open minded about input from others. It assumes that we’re both noticing the offers others are making and actively listening to what’s being offered, taking account of body language as well as simply what’s being said. Dickins tells us that improvisers define listening as “the willingness to be changed”.
Once we’ve noticed the offers, we can then adopt a yes, and… rather than a yes, but…mindset to help build on these options rather than dismissing them out of hand. This can be hard, because it means deferring judgement, rather than immediately defaulting to “that just won’t work” or “we’ve tried it before and it didn’t work out”. It means focussing on the potential of even the most outlandish idea before highlighting its problems. That doesn’t mean that we have to say yes to everything, but it does mean that we take the time to explore a wider range of options and to build on something that might not be right as it stands, but has potential.
So, the Let Go stage is when we need to be curious and open-minded, taking into account as divergent a range of inputs and insights as possible so that we can properly take stock of the options on offer. It’s about seeing the potential in everything that’s offered up, and not closing down those opportunities before they’re properly considered.
This is where we have to decide on the various options we’re gathered.
One of the hardest aspects of making a decision is the judgement about how quickly we should make it versus the information we perceive we need to make the best possible decision we can. In improv terms, it’s about what Dickins calls informed intuition. This means matching the situation with our experience of what has worked in the past to make our best estimate of when to act and what we should do. It’s also about being creative and enterprising with the options available.
Improvisers say that the only bad decision is no decision, because, once we act, even if things don’t turn out as planned, as least something is happening and we’re in a position to get feedback and adjust again (remember: this is a loop). In short, we are learning. It’s about making an active choice – learning by doing – rather than endlessly negotiating with ourselves and falling foul of analysis paralysis.
Once we’ve made the decision, we need to act on it, which generally means communicating the choice clearly and persuasively to others. It’s about buy-in as well as understanding.
When the going gets tough, it’s sometimes easy to short-cut this communications piece. But it’s crucial not just that we keep communicating, but also that our communication is two-way and interactive. As we’ve seen, we need to listen actively as well as speak to remain open to anything new that’s offered and we might want to take into account. We need to take responsibility for communicating effectively, to make sure we’re being heard. We need to relate to whoever we’re communicating with, thinking about their priorities and needs as well as our own, which might mean flexing our own preferred communication style accordingly.
Once we’ve communicated the decision, the chances are we’ll need to go back to noticing so that we can assess the impact of the decision we’ve made. In this sense, agility is not a destination, but a constant state of iteration. That’s another reason why we talk about it in terms of mindset rather than process.
Agile in action: some scenarios
So much for the theory. But how can we develop and deploy an agile mindset in our day-to-day work? Here are some scenarios that might help bring to life what acting in an agile way at work could look like.
Scenario 1: A little enterprise goes a long way
Nisha was feeling frustrated. As a junior member of her company’s marketing department, she had to struggle daily with a crm system that was no longer fit for purpose. No one else seemed to notice, despite her recommendations, until, one day, it crashed – and her boss was suddenly confronted with a broken system the supplier no longer fully supported.
This was Nisha’s opportunity. She had already anticipated that this might happen, so she was well placed to take her colleagues through an NLDC loop to help them deal with the crisis they were facing - and to pivot accordingly.
Nisha already knew that the system was fragile, but she had a hard time overcoming her colleagues’ desire to stick with what they knew. They had been too busy, too complacent to focus on the potential problem.
Fortunately, Nisha had been interrogating that problem for some time. Although she couldn’t know exactly how it might manifest itself, and when, she had a sense that they’d soon be facing a tricky situation, and was prepared for what needed to happen next.
Nisha’s concise and constructive summary of the scenario the department was facing helped her colleagues to get on board with the need for change.
She was able to lead a discussion about the options for getting a new system up and running, and how they might operate in the meantime, as she had researched the options for upgrading with the existing supplier vs starting from scratch elsewhere. This kickstarted a more positive session where colleagues felt they had the space (and permission) to pitch their own ideas and explore what they could all – collectively – do for the best.
Nisha’s boss was impressed. So much so that she asked Nisha to lead a small sub-group tasked with coming up with a more detailed plan and schedule for managing the current situation and moving to a new generation solution as soon as possible.
The sub-group’s plan was discussed and adjusted within the team. Nisha was then asked to present their plan to the board.
The group had created a persuasive, proportionate and affordable solution that called for stepped change rather than something more radical. This would allow the department to continue its work while they moved to a new system that would serve them better in future. It was also a plan that allowed for some flexibility – building in some agility for business needs no-one could anticipate at that moment.
It was a plan all of the board could support and approve.
Nisha’s enterprising approach to a difficult situation shows how well she had prepared for the unexpected. So, when the problem hit, she was equipped to come up with a plan, to guide her colleagues and to use what was on offer to come up with a creative solution to meet business needs.
Scenario 2: Flexibility in action
UK-based Mateo was delighted when his boss asked him to contribute to a new initiative being led by his US colleagues. He was due to travel to join them for two weeks, but the Covid pandemic ruled that out. Mateo was keen, though, not to lose out completely.
Here’s how we came up with a flexible solution using the NLDC loop.
At first sight, Mateo’s situation looks pretty straightforward. He couldn’t be with his colleagues, so collaboration was off the table.
But Mateo was made of sterner stuff than that. He thought carefully about (noticed) what that collaboration would really mean. It mostly boiled down to pitching ideas in a series of brainstorms and being available to join daily team meetings. The big challenge was trying to do all this in a different time zone.
Mateo was disappointed about not spending time face-to-face with his colleagues, but once he was reconciled to not being able to stick with the original plan, he was able to pivot to focus on what might be possible.
Letting go his disappointment, he considered the options he did have for adding value to the project team remotely.
He decided that, if he couldn’t be with his US colleague in person, he would at least operate on the same time zone. It would mean starting and ending his working day much later than usual, but it would at least remove a key barrier to being involved.
As well as being able to join the key meetings, he also thought of buddying up with a US colleague he knew well, who would be able to represent his views more informally.
Mateo approached his boss with his idea, persuading him that having him represent the expertise and interests of the UK operation was important to how well the initiative could be implemented. It was also a way to keep communication channels open at a difficult time for everyone.
As a result, his boss was happy to advocate on his behalf, and Matteo put his plan into action. He successfully completed his two weeks on Eastern Standard Time, and was able to make a difference in a different way.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a spectacular example of uncertainty and unpredictability. Matteo demonstrated how agile he could be by analysing how it had affected his plans and being flexible – and creative – about coming up with a workable solution that was good for him, but also his organisation.
Scenario 3: Making the most of feedback
Ruby prides herself on her project management skills, and she’s gaining a reputation for leading and delivering even complex tasks to time and budget. There’s just one problem: she’s not a natural communicator. Her manager has just given her some feedback that she needs to find ways to communicate better with the project team. What can Ruby do?
Feedback, as we know, can be a double-edged sword, whether we’re giving it or on the receiving end. It can be especially hard to take on board when we’re encouraged to course correct and improve what we do, and how.
But, in agility terms, it can play an invaluable role in helping us to flex and change, whether it comes from customers suggesting product or service refinements or a colleague asking us to consider and amend our behaviours.
Ruby might do well to use the NLDC loop to help her think about her next steps.
It had never occurred to Ruby that she wasn’t communicating as well as she might. Her initial response to the feedback was one of surprise, and she also felt a bit annoyed. Surely this wasn’t really an issue? But now that she’s calmed down, she has to admit that there might be room for improvement.
Ruby takes some time out to unpick the feedback she’s received. She begins to notice that, when she’s busy with a project, she tends to press ahead regardless of everything and everyone around her. It might explain why her colleagues sometimes seem a little off the pace, or always seem to be asking questions about what’s going on.
Armed with this new awareness, Ruby is ready to let go. It’s not easy to accept that she has a problem, but she can also see that this new information is an opportunity to improve and learn. She is able to put aside her initial response and accept the feedback as an offer rather than a threat.
She decides to go back to her boss to ask for a bit more detail about how her lack of communication might be impacting her own effectiveness, and that of the project team. They agree that Ruby will pro-actively ask team members how communication might improve, so that she can consider the options.
Ruby knows that she won’t be able to take up all of the ideas from her colleagues, but she has decided to trial weekly e-mail round-ups that will be informed by a new team Slack channel. The e-mail can also be used to communicate with other stakeholders outside the project team, too.
In her next project meeting, Ruby outlines these protocols and how they’ll be tested for the next three months. She is clear that she’s open to feedback about how they’re working and feels much less phased by the prospect of making further changes as she goes along.
Ruby wasn’t expecting the feedback she received. It felt challenging and negative to start with, but she realised that could use it to chart a new path that has – in the end – been positive both for herself and her colleagues. She has also learnt that adopting a more agile mindset might help with other aspects of her day-to-day work.
The ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus of Ephesus, warned us that “If you do not expect the unexpected, you will not recognize it when it arrives”. It’s this recognition that an agile mindset gives us. It’s an understanding that, while we can’t always plan for every scenario, we can at least be equipped to understand and use what any scenario offers up.
And that’s an offer we might all consider accepting.
Test your understanding
- Describe Max Dickins’ extended definition of ‘agility’.
- Outline the four phases of the NLDC loop.
What does it mean for you?
- As part of your programme, you will need to demonstrate your ability to act in agile ways. Over the next few weeks and months, look out for situations where the NLDC loop might be a useful tool to help you navigate uncertainty.
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