Being effective in teams

Using Improv to cultivate an agile mindset

After understanding how motivation works and how our industry has forced us into responsive mindsets, I started my search for ways to cultivate a healthy mindset. To create motivational environments. One of my first discoveries was Improv.

Improv allows us to develop our soft skills

Improv is an open format that allows us to develop our soft skills, mainly:

  • Sharpness
  • Communication
  • Teamwork
  • Listening
  • fail-fast attitude

Important to notice is that it allows us. Improv should never be used to force people to train their soft skills. People who are participating decide for themselves if and which soft skills they will train (mostly unconscious). Unconscious because people already have a vague notion of which soft skills are important to them, and which they like. And because people have an innate drive to learn skills which are relevant to their environment, they will want to develop the soft skills that are relevant to themselves and their environment.

Use short Improv sessions to get people actively participating in interactive workshops

Improv doesn’t always have to be organized as a 1-2 hour workshop. You can also organize short sessions of 15-30 minutes before an interactive training or workshop. This way you can use Improv to:

  • get people in an active/assertive mindset
  • build up energy
  • get people to know each other
  • get people to make mistakes

During a short Improv Session, you should only do simple Improv exercises and not ask people to perform on stage. In the attached file (see below), those off-limit exercises are called the On-stage exercises.

Organize your own Improv sessions with these exercises

I have created a pdf file with Improv exercises that you can use to organize your own Improv Sessions.


Being effective in teams

Add meaning and kill your darlings

One of the most important concepts that I focus on being a romanticist, is meaning. It’s a term that is difficult to describe using words, but nevertheless carries great weight wherever we go. A job with little meaning is demotivating for most of us. A job with meaning can give you the energy to get out of bed with a smile on your face.

If you – like me – want to create a positive work environment, it’s important to create meaning (for yourself and for others).

In my experience, there is one simple way to give meaning to anything: to spend time and energy on something. Because in the end, that’s where meaning comes from:

Meaning = energy (spent) * time (spent)

Things don’t magically gain meaning just by being present. We give meaning to these things, whether they are people, pets or a car. We give them meaning by spending time and energy on them.

Some examples:

  • If you talk a lot to your pet and cuddle with it, they will gain meaning to you.
  • If you bake and bring cookies to work, work itself will gain more meaning to you (because you spent extra time doing something for work). The great thing is that your colleagues will also add meaning to you if they eat your cookies.
  • A task that you finish as swiftly as possible, will have little to no meaning to you.
  • If you prepare a grand entrance on your first day on the job, you will gain meaning to everyone present.
  • If you spend half an hour chitchatting with colleagues each day, you can create meaningful relationships at work.

Unfortunately adding meaning will take time. That’s why it’s important to decide for yourself what you want to spend time on, and on who. Because based on those decisions, your environment will automatically gain meaning to you.

Kill your darlings

One of my teachers once taught me about the ‘kill your darlings principle’. It’s about what happens if you unintentionally spend a lot of time on anything, and gain an emotional bond (meaning) which makes it difficult to do the right thing. Which is quite often: destroy your old work and start over.

When I was developing my first website, I spend way too much time finetuning all these useless features. I learned a lot from those self-made challenges and it was a lot of fun. However, this website gained a lot of meaning to me. But it wasn’t good (since it was my first). It can be pretty devastating to put your old work aside and start on something new. This is what kill your darlings means. We need to train ourselves to let go of everything we fear to lose. Or else we might get stuck in horrible situations.

Positive meaning

As I explained, it’s pretty easy to add meaning to almost anything. You just spend time and energy on something. But being the romantic I am, I learned the hard way that adding meaning is not good in itself. Meaning will add weight to any kind of relationship you have. If you add meaning to a stressful relationship with someone, this relationship will end up becoming more stressful. If you spend more time and energy on a horrible date, the date will only get more and more horrible.

The trick is to add meaning to the good things in your life. That’s why its important that you decide where you add meaning in your life:

  • Do you like baking? From experience, I can say that everyone at work loves pie (or just the time spend with each other)
  • Do you like beer and cocktails? Gather a group of colleagues who like to get a drink after working hours.
  • Are you into sports? Invite a colleague to go squashing.

The 8 hours you spend working, don’t have to be filled with ‘work’. I advise everyone to spend some time with other colleagues and do fun activities with other colleagues. This is the best way to add positive meaning to your life. For yourself and for your colleagues.

Being effective in teams

Mastery Curve – how we learn new things

The ‘Mastery Curve’ is a model I picked from game designers. It’s a model to understand the learning curve of players. It’s incredibly important to understand this learning curve in the game industry, or else you might lose an immersed player halfway through the game.

A beginning player requires different stimuli than a player who has spent over 100 hours playing the game. That’s why it’s important for the game industry to have a strong grip on this type of motivation.

We can use this model to understand how our own mastery motivation works. The Mastery Curve teaches us two things:

  1. We don’t grow constantly. Occasionally we get an epiphany and everything falls into place. Most of the time we barely grow, sometimes we don’t improve for a period of months. This can be frustrating, but it’s just a part of the process. Time is an essential part of learning.
  2. Our learning process is an exponential curve. The better we get, the slower we grow. Eventually, it is impossible to master any skill for 100%.

As you can see in the bottom graph, you can get stuck at a certain skill level for a long period (months), but that’s just a part of growing! As long as you don’t give up, you will eventually pick up the pace and continue growing.

Start learning

Whenever you start something new, expect a lot of frustrating moments in which you won’t learn anything. Epiphanies don’t happen on a weekly basis. And remember: if you endure, you might experience your next epiphany and take a huge leap forward. Especially when you start something new, there is so much more to learn.

Unfortunately, the opposite is also true.

Nobody can truly master anything

I started surfing several years ago. It was fun at the time, I kept learning new techniques and I slowly got to the point that I could surf a wave while standing up. But after a few years, I got bored. It took too much time before I got another epiphany. Especially since I live in Holland and I barely have the time to go to the ocean. And that’s the main thing, mastering any skill takes a lot of time. I slowly realized that I didn’t like surfing in itself, I just liked the growing aspect of it. And I barely grew anymore. Continuing to surf and getting better at it was getting harder and harder over time. I haven’t even surfed in 2017.

There’s a flipside to this. Everyone has these problems and nobody can fully master a skill for 100% (because it’s an exponential curve). As long as you manage to endure and keep training your skills, you could, in fact, get better than anyone else.

Do you have someone that inspires you? Someone who is so incredible that it intimates you? Let me tell you: you could beat him/her!

After all, even if your role model has mastered a skill for 99%, given enough time you could master the same skill for 99,5%.

Being effective in teams

Flow – the best way to develop yourself

When was the last time you were working on something and completely forgot the time? You were so immersed in your activity that you actually forgot your next meeting and got there late.

A state of flow

This is called a ‘state of flow’. Csikszentmihalyi writes about this state of flow in his book. He describes this as an ecstatic state. Being in a state of flow feels like immersing yourself completely in whatever you are doing. Nothing matters, but the task you are focusing on right now.

Some great side effects are that the state of flow also increases our happiness and our performance. Whenever we enter this ecstatic state, we are more capable of solving the complex problems we are facing on a daily basis.

Match your task challenge to your current skill level

You can achieve this state of flow by working on something that:

  • Requires an above average skill level.
  • Has an above average challenge level.
  • The challenge level matches your current skill level.

When the challenge of your task does not match your current skill level, two things can happen:

  • Anxiety. When you are working on a task of which the challenge level is too much for your current skill level, you will experience anxiety. Over time you will experience pressure and stress. If you continue in this state for a longer period, this could even lead to physical complaints like a burnout.
  • Boredom. But if you work on a task which is too easy for you, you will get bored. The most direct consequence is that you will start making mistakes, simply because you don’t take your task seriously. But over time this could also lead to demotivation because you stopped learning new things.

Beware of distractions

But there is one other thing that can break your state of flow: distractions.

Getting in a state of flow takes time. For a normal person, it takes around 20 minutes to reach a state of flow. So every time you get distracted by a phone call, WhatsApp message or a colleague with a question, it will take time to get back into this state of flow. Unfortunately, we are subject to distractions a lot throughout a day.

Some simple tricks to handle such distractions:

  • Disable notifications of emails and WhatsApp messages and only check them when you have time.
  • Use the rubber duck. Place a rubber duck on your desk whenever you are trying to get into a state of flow (and let your colleagues know you are not to be disturbed when the rubber duck is present).

Whatever you are working on, try to enter the state of flow. It will improve your happiness and performance.

Being effective in teams

Autonomy – Taking the wheel

I remember when the Product Owner stepped into our room with a new user story. He asked if we could make a minor change to one of our web pages. What he did not know is that nobody understood the code, nor the ancient documentation that was written for this webpage.  After running a few tests we even discovered that half of the features did not even work. We made a proposition: we implement this user story if we get three extra weeks to rebuild this page and rewrite the documentation. Luckily our awesome Product Owner understood our situation and we managed to get these extra weeks.

This type of motivation is called autonomy and is the subject of this blog post.  Autonomy is the need to be self-directing, to have the freedom to decide how we live our life. At work, this could be understood as doing what’s right, instead of what’s expected of you.

Autonomy is highly dependent on the other two motivational factors: Mastery and Purpose. Because as we grow more competent in our skills (mastery) and discover what our environment wants to achieve (purpose), we can determine for ourselves what the biggest problems are in our environment, and how we can solve them. And that’s what autonomy is all about: the need to be able to do the right thing, the right way.

Don’t forget responsibility

Autonomy is not just about having the freedom to do things the right way. Because with this freedom, we become empowered to change our environment. But we must never forget the words of uncle Ben: “With great power, comes great responsibility”. And with empowerment, comes responsibility as well.

This is a common problem in IT organizations. With the rise of Agile, many organizations have given their teams more freedom to deliver great software. When these teams don’t make responsible decisions or fail to live up to expectations, they will lose the trust of their stakeholders, and the company.

How to motivate based on autonomy

Autonomy is the most complicated factor in creating a motivational environment. Especially because based on your employees’ mastery and purpose levels, they will require more or less autonomy. The need for autonomy is different per person, but also different over time. And to make matters worse, the person who wants autonomy is never the person who can give it. In most cases, managers are the ones who must provide the right amount of autonomy for their employees.

As you can imagine, this isn’t easy for managers either. To understand how to effectively motivate employees based on autonomy, keep the autonomy slider in mind:

The Autonomy Slider

an example of the autonomy slider with 3 autonomy levels filled in.
Autonomy Slider with example content in levels 1, 2, 4, and the slider set on level 2.

The idea behind the autonomy slider is:

  1. You don’t just give people full autonomy, you gradually increase their level of autonomy, based on how much responsibility they can handle. Every time your employees prove they can handle this and want more, you can increase their level of autonomy, by adjusting the slider.
  2. You specify which responsibilities come with a certain freedom. Make sure employees understand how to fulfill these responsibilities (make sure the team understands what you mean with terms like predictable). There is no fixed amount of levels of autonomy, just add new levels as your employees grow.
  3. As an employee, you can also initiate the discussion to get more autonomy. As long as you accept the responsibility that comes with it. That’s exactly what we did as a team, in the example I started this blog post with.

Rules of thumb:

  • Make it visible. Whether you use this slider on employees or for entire teams, make sure the freedom and responsibilities are visible to them at all times.
  • Management facilitates. With employees gaining autonomy, the role of management becomes more facilitating and less directing. The time of you telling people what to do will be over. Facilitating is about creating a common understanding of what we want to accomplish and letting teams find their own way to get there.
  • People make mistakes. Whenever people try new things, they will make mistakes. Whenever employees take on new responsibilities, expect them to make mistakes. Don’t try to correct these mistakes beforehand, or else they won’t learn from them. Encourage them to make these mistakes and learn from them.

Always remember that autonomy is something that you scale up or down, based on the needs of your employees. And remember that autonomy doesn’t come cheaply, it consists of both freedom and responsibility.

After all, autonomy is the need to be able to do the right thing, the right way. The need to be self-determined.

As to what happened with the story of the webpage that we rebuild? Two months later, our Product Owner told us how rebuilding this page has reduced the number of calls to the complaints department with 90%! Normal user stories can’t tweak those kinds of numbers, but standing up for what’s right clearly can. So next time you see an opportunity like this, stand up and fight for what’s right!

Being effective in teams

Mastery – Being the best version of yourself

I was 21. I just graduated from MBO college, it was night and I was strolling around town with a couple of friends. We just celebrated our graduation and did not want to go home. After a few hours, we got lost and arrived at this big haunted mansion. We saw a sleek figure standing at the entrance. He was looking directly at us, and asked: “Would you like a tour?”, inviting us in. For a second we looked at each other and then we succumbed to our curiosity, following the man into the mansion. With no idea what could happen next.

Throughout my life, I have done several stupid things like the example above. And I knew these were not my brightest moments, but my curiosity simply took over. I wanted to explore or discover something (and I also love to get a good story out of it).

But whether you love taking risks and doing stupid things, or you prefer to dive into books and study in a safe zone, we all have the same internal drive to learn, to grow and to become the best version of ourselves. This is called ‘mastery’ and it is the subject of this blog post.

Mastery or Competence

The term ‘Mastery’ for motivation was coined by Dan Pink in his book Drive. However, the original theory of Intrinsic Motivation (Self Determination Theory) used a different word: competence. Both words more or less mean the same thing, however:

  • Mastery focuses on being the best at something.
  • Competence focuses on being effective in your environment.

The big distinction here is that competence specifies the environment, stating that learning is only motivational if your new skills are relevant in your day-to-day environment.

Example: when I give a presentation about cooking noodles at my IT client, I can expect a low turnout. But if I talk about how cooking noodles have helped me understand software code, I can expect a much higher turnout. People will be motivated because they think they can learn something relevant to their job.

Photo by Rita Morais on Unsplash
Photo by Rita Morais on Unsplash

Organizing a motivational environment based on mastery

The most important ingredient for a motivational environment, based on mastery, is to create a platform for people to learn. Important is to have participants reserve an X amount of time to gather at location Y with the sole purpose of gaining and sharing knowledge. The most effective way is to schedule a recurring moment where people can share knowledge. Some examples of platforms are:

  • Innovation Days. One day every 6 weeks, on which employees decide what they work on. As long as they present their newly gained knowledge at the end of the day.
  • Lunch Sessions. Having presentations and brainstorms during lunch. In advance, participants can vote or share their favorite subjects, or movies that they want to broadcast during the lunch session. You could play TED videos for example.
  • Recently I heard about the Morning Study. In which you reserve one hour during each morning (daily from 10 till 11 for example), during which team members have time to read books about their field of expertise, watch TED videos, or debate new practices of work.

What can you do yourself?

Every individual can make a difference. With these simple tricks you can start to create a motivational environment based on mastery, without the need to organize entire platforms:

  • Ask for and give feedback. Feedback is the primary measurement to discover if what you have learned is relevant in your environment. By giving feedback, you motivate someone to keep/stop behaving in a certain manner. And by receiving feedback, you will discover if what you have learned can contribute to your environment.
  • Try and fail. Experimenting (and making mistakes) is the best way to grow and to learn new things. If you only know the fastest way to the bus stop, you will have little understanding of the area. Perhaps you are even missing out on a spectacular view along the way. Try different approaches to learn new things and to truly understand how things work.

So whatever your role in within your company, you can help to create a motivational environment, based on mastery. Just give and ask for feedback, and keep on experimenting.

And as for the haunted mansion… our guide was playing pranks on us the whole time to scare us off. But we managed to stay with him until the end of the tour, and then we even watched a nice Phil Collins DVD together. The mansion was beautiful and we got some nice history lessons about the building.

Being effective in teams

Purpose – What are we doing? And why?

What are we doing? Why are we implementing this sorry excuse for a user story? What will this user story achieve in the bigger picture? Is there even a bigger picture?

I have attended several refinements as a coach, where I was waiting for those questions to arise… Unfortunately, they are rarely asked. Usually, because there is no easy answer to these questions. The difficult truth is that we all like to please others, so we would rather stick our heads in the sand and hope everything will turn out fine.

And that is exactly what we get. Instead of having an awesome job, doing cool stuff and making a difference: our job will be just that, it will be fine. And it could be so much better, with some practices I will share on this blog.

Being effective in teams

Improv as motivator


I am Fin Kingma and I am worried. Worried about all the people working agile and still focusing on methods, techniques and tools.
I myself am an Agile Tester. And over the years I have come across a lot of trainings and workshops about Exploratory Testing, Test Automation, and other techniques / tools you can use to add more value in your team as a tester.

I notice a huge gap in soft skills trainings and workshops for testers, but also for other IT professionals. How can that be? If the first Agile Value is named “People and Interactions over Processes and Tools”, why do we spend so much time on learning new processes and tools, and so little time on ourselves and our interactions? It’s not like working in IT will improve our soft skills automatically. Or is everyone just skipping the first value…

Several years ago I discovered why. Why there are so few trainings and workshops to train our testing soft skills. It is because it is ‘intangible’, which is a fancy word for ‘I have no idea how to train that’.

The challenge
Being quite competitive myself, I had this little barney in the back of my head saying ‘challenge accepted!’ and so I started my quest to come up with ways to train these intangible soft skills.
I started digging into Intrinsic Motivation, which gave me a solid understanding of how our motivation and behavior works. Even stuff like manipulation. I just wanted to understand everything that could help me develop trainings and workshops to train soft skills for the IT professional. Mainly focusing on testers, because I believe testers should be the evangelists in helping a team improve (not only testing the product, but also testing the process and the team).
Using my newly gained knowledge of Intrinsic Motivation I gave several presentations and workshops, where I managed to help people understand their own motivations and behavior. I helped people understand the difference between self determined / proactive individuals (what every organization is looking for nowadays) versus reactive individuals, which was the result of bad management for several decades. Everyone saw the value of becoming proactive / self determined individuals, but unfortunately most people were still stuck in the reactive part and I could not help them to become proactive. The advise I gave, which I learned from Intrinsic Motivation and from the many horrible manipulation stories, was: ‘you need to discover who you are, for yourself’.

But to be completely honest… it was still something intangible for me as well.

But it seems that I now have come up with a possible way to ‘tangilize’ the intangible.

As a kid I spend some years on the stage, practising theatre. It was a lot of fun, but I always got bored when we had to follow the script. Those days I never even heard of Improvisation Theatre.

Six months ago I started practising Improvisation Theatre, to find out if it could help with my quest to train soft skills for IT professionals. To turn reactive individuals into proactive self-determined individuals.
While practising Improvisation Theatre I discovered that the art of Improv (short for Improvisation Theatre) makes use of exactly those soft skills that spark our creativity and come up with new brilliant ways to improve ourselves and our communication (listening and talking effectively). Basically it focuses on almost everything you need to become self-determined. Dan O’Conner gives an amazing speech of how improvisation could be used:

There’s also a nice blogpost from Robert Strauch who also made the link between Improv and Testing, and a few talks are given about using improv skills to improve the way we test. So this idea of using Improv is not completely new. But I am curious how improv can be used to transform people from reactive into proactive beings.

Amongst others, the following soft skills are trained using Improv:

  • Be bold, dare to stand up in front of an audience
  • Listening well to your partners and your audience
  • Bringing your message across as effectively as possible
  • Accept and embrace any situation
  • Having fun

Testing it’s practical use
I already organized a simple workshop and discovered that it was possible to have an entire group of people who are new to improv, stand and perform on stage within the hour. Several build up exercises are required to get there though. Now as a next step I want to go further. I want to discover if I can spark proactive behaviour using Improv workshops at clients, to help teams reach a stage of continuous improvement. Off course I will do this the testers-way! I will create a hypothesis and act (organize workshops at a client in this case) to prove or disprove my hypothesis. Because that is what makes testing fun.

My hypothesis is as follows:

“People who voluntarily join improvisation theatre workshops at a regularly base will show increased proactive behaviour over time.”

I will measure this using the following metrics:
– the amount of improvements done during a sprint within a team (should go up),
– the amount of complaining without action done during a sprint (should go down).

I will measure these by observing teams before and after each workshop, focusing on the attendees of the workshops.

For the coming months I will update this blog more actively to share any interesting updates.

Being effective in teams

Experimenting with Intrinsic Motivation

hey there!

For years I had this notion that it must be much more complex to Intrinsically motivate people than to motivate them externally. That it should be easier to decrease the internalization of their motivation, than to increase it. I could not have been more wrong…

Mostly because there have been many experiments like the candle problem. Problems that required creative heuristic thinking to be solved and where participants become driven by external motivation (simply by adding a monetary reward).

For those that are unfamiliar with the candle problem:


The challenge is: how to fix and light a candle on a wall (a cork board) in a way so the candle wax won’t drip onto the table below.

These experiments show how easily participants can be manipulated by lowering their internalization, making them less effective in solving complex puzzles.

Several months ago I conducted experiments with the same idea using a dutch game called ‘black stories’, where participants have to think creatively to find the solution. In this case, to solve a murder. I came to the same conclusions as most of the candle problem experiments, but at least I discovered them myself. I learned for myself instead of from a book.

A few weeks ago I conducted a new experiment (still using black stories). But instead of playing with a focus group and a control group, I decided to go for one group and play with the rules to see what happens within the group.

Basically I started out playing the game the way it is meant to be played. But as players made too much progress – I changed the rules.

Individual game chips
My main addition were game chips (= external stimuli). Players could win chips by asking the right questions or lose chips by asking stupid questions. The game master could decide which questions were right and which were stupid (I picked someone random as game master).

An important insight was not only the speed in which questions were asked, but also the type of questions. The game started active, with questions being asked every second. After the introduction of game chips, the players started asking ‘safe’ questions. Questions that would rarely be considered stupid, but uncovered almost no clues at all. It could take 30 seconds between the questions that were asked. You can imagine that it took very long for the game to be completed this way (and the plan was to timebox these sessions for 10 minutes :D).

Group game chips
Another fun alteration was having game chips for the ‘group’. Game chips were now shared. All of a sudden, the players started thinking more collaboratively. Listening to each other, but still asking ‘safe’ questions. Discussions were born.

It was incredibly fun to see what these changes did to the group behavior. Everyone was affected by these game changers and it had enormous impact on the speed in which the game was played – and completed. As I put more focus on the game chips, less relevant questions were asked and it took longer to complete the game.

After evaluating one of the sessions I got feedback that it was normal for the game to start active and slowly lose speed, because the first relevant questions are the easiest to think of.

The challenge
So I felt an upcoming challenge that I had to take. I decided to spice things up for the last group. Before the game started I gave every player a few game chips and explained the ‘rules’, or actually ‘my screwed up rules’.

After 5 minutes, not a single relevant question was asked.

Then I intervened. I took away all the game chips and explained it was free for all once again.

Now every player was firing away relevant questions. Not a second was wasted. It took them only a few minutes to finish the game this time.

When playing a game that requires creative thinking, triggering Intrinsic Motivation is JUST AS EASY as triggering External Motivation.