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.

2 replies on “Improv as motivator”

I came across this post doing a little research on usefull skills to train for the benefit of personal and professional development and I was wondering if you have had any results to share so far with improv as a learningtool. Will there be any updates to this article?

hey Waldamar,

Sorry it took my so long to respond. I have been recovering from a burn-out since october.
That’s also why I haven’t been able to do these Improv sessions regularly with the team yet, one result was of increased binding between us and the other teams, after the session we could more easily find eachother. One team actually started organizing these sessions by themselves after I left, so that supports my hypothesis of increased proactive behavior. But that’s it.

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