Agile on Stage: Thoughts on Performing Arts, Scrum, and other things
In this day and age, the likelihood of you coming across terms such as “Agile”, “Scrum”, and “Sprints” is high; especially if you work in a complex environment or are interested in technology and software development.
In some instances, teams take a feast or famine approach to Agile. On one hand, some companies enact a Scrum dictatorship where the scrum master or scrum team follows the scrum guide exactly as prescribed; leaving no room for adaptability even though adapting to the needs of the team is one of the main pillars of scrum practice. On the other hand, in companies that are more waterfall, through their agile transformation stage, some end up doing “Water-Scrum-Fall”, “Wagile” or whatever other Frankenstein combination of the two approaches. In any case, I invite you to dive into an analogy of Agile and the creative process so we can try to shine a light (or a “spotlight”, pun intended), on the way we have been creating tech products. It might seem a little bit of a stretch but bear with me.
What is the first image that pops into your mind when you picture or hear the word dancer or actor? Some of you may have immediately imagined a graceful ballerina, following a strictly regimented set of steps and pirouettes.
Others may have conjured an image of a Hamlet holding the famous skull and reciting the Shakespearean "to be or not to be" monologue.
I urge you to challenge that assumption however and instead imagine a barefoot performer, laying down on a wooden floor in the dark, moving rhythmically with only the vague instruction to "feel the music" to guide their movement. No choreography, no lines, just the performer and the moment. Done it? This is the “performing” we are going to reference back to, so contemporary and creative performance practice.
Adaptability - the Core
There’s this general thought in most dance genres that in order for you to master a specific dance, you need to learn sequences that are taught by the teacher or choreographer and repeat them thousands of times. However, knowing a sequence of steps does not ensure you would be able to actually perform and transmit the emotions in a piece. It also doesn’t necessarily mean you feel comfortable doing it. Something similar occurs with Scrum. You might feel the urge to strictly follow the Scrum principles and ceremonies and with that, finally be able to say your team is agile. Mechanically following the steps however will not ensure you are making the best decisions for your team’s specific need and therefore may lead to missing the core values on which the framework was founded. In both the creative art-making process and Scrum, you need to have the critical thinking, so always ask yourself:
“Does this make sense for me?”, “Am I truly owning this process or only following some predetermined rules because someone said so?”. You, yourself, and that little self-reflection bug
In complex environments, we develop products with the end-users in mind, just as in creative environments, we develop productions with our audience in mind. In a contemporary dance class or company, the amount of time you spend learning choreography and the amount of time you spend making it your own are equally important. The ladder is where you adapt what you learned to your body and let the actual sequence be affected by you and your inherent experience. Is your agile team forcing itself to follow the methodology without any regard for what works best for you and your product? Don’t forget:
Agile … is an attitude, not a technique with boundaries. An attitude has no boundaries, so we wouldn’t ask “can I use agile here”, but rather “how would I act in the agile way here?” or “how agile can we be, here?” Alistair Cockburn
Collaboration - the Arms and Legs
Within the world of Agile, we often talk about self-organising cross-functional teams. In similar ways, the creative process in either contemporary dance or theatre can only benefit from having a diverse group of people, since creativity is all about making new connections. You can’t develop new ideas if you don’t experience new ways of thinking. There is a saying which goes a little like “the people who are in the room are the right people” and it is important to keep this in mind as cross-functional individuals collaborate as part of a self-organising team. But also, it’s almost impossible to create something outstanding from doing all the planning going straight from discovery to full delivery. Just as we deliver increments of the product at the end of every sprint, we deliver increments of the production at the end of every day and iterate on this based on empiricism. The ultimate goal is to foster a collaborative process with the aim of delivering a unified, feasible and valuable product/production goal.
Agility - the Moving Body
An agile team is nothing more than a group of people moving together. Even if you have very technically strong individuals, it doesn’t mean they can create a strong piece together. Think of it as an endless improvisation session where everything happens in the blink of an eye and you have to go all in all the time. More than that, think while you do it, question every step and don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. It’s up to everyone on the team to make the process better. Be present, try new ideas, absorb and propose changes.