On the side, I am a Classic Egyptian belly dancer. I know - it's not something you would expect to read on a blog about UX and Agile; however, it is something that has affected me deeply and has dramatically changed how I view work and life. Some people view belly dance as derivative of stripping - it is far from it. There are countless articles about its history as an art form and its uniqueness in that no Egyptian belly dance performance - even if loosely choreographed - is ever the same twice. It's about expressing emotion of the moment and that always brings up some nuances here and there. I know - a stark contrast to Agile and UX at first glance. However, if you dig deeper - it's not all that different - especially when it comes to creating experiences and working with others.
As something different, I decided to write a series about what I learned from improv Egyptian belly dance and how it influenced me to become a better Agile/UX practitioner. This is the first part, which is focused on self-confidence and being prepared.
Doing improvisational Egyptian belly dance has taught me a lot about life. Generally, to successfully perform improv (meaning, the audience can make sense of what you are doing onstage) your mind has to be very flexible and highly responsive. Over time, you learn how to think fast on your feet and respond immediately to anything that's thrown your way.
A lot of people ask me, "isn't it stressful to dance to live music?" When I first did it, yes. I was in a panic before every performance, hoping I'd get a song I could dance to and do a good job (rather, I could perform a choreography). As time went on and I learned how to work with live music, it got much easier. And I realized the key was to rely less and less on choreographies (planning) and more on being prepared.
Planning and having a stash of too many contingency plans doesn't make you prepared - it's just too much to remember and too complicated to keep all paths in the front of your mind. So what do I mean by being prepared?
Being prepared is self-confidence
- You know that will do the right thing at the right time based on what you know about the music (history, lyrics, melody, etc.)
- Your are comfortable with expressing your emotions in front of other people
- You know Egyptian music so well that you have an idea of what the band will do before they do it - strong intuition
- You are ok with being present, in the moment and dancing in the now rather than thinking about what's 5 steps ahead or worry about what the band will do next
- Being open to the unexpected
- Open to learning - experiencing success and failures
- Different definitions and values of success - the audience is pleased, self-fulfillment, fluid performance
- Open to the ideas of others (typical for Egyptian improv - the band may play a song you aren't familiar with or don't expect - but the show must go on; or what you think is great - the audience doesn't care for and you need to adjust - quick!)
Basically, being prepared is having the ability to respond to what is thrown your way without hesitation (unless you feel that hesitation is needed).
Having a plan is confidence in your plan
- You hope that the band plays a song that goes with the choreographies you know
- Value performing steps/footwork over interpretation. You want to be technically perfect and perform each step perfectly rather than express emotion.
- Plans are like a software program - if/then statement. They are not fluid by nature and don't explore possibilities or going down a new path
- You, the band, and the audience are separate groups - not a single organic organism that all contributes to the experience
The plan, choreography, is everything. If the music deviates from what you know - you are helpless. It's about the math of the dance - counting, hearing beats. It's not about feeling the music and feels right to come next.
In so many ways, what I learned from Egyptian dance, being prepared vs. having a plan, is similar to how Agile works.
Egyptian music: The band plays a song, and if you are familiar with it, you have ways to respond to it - but it isn't until the moment arrives that you execute the step. You don't think too far ahead because you don't know what the band will do. You are in the moment.
Agile: The team has a vision (see my Webinar on Iteration Zero), a goal, and a collection of prioritized stories, but each week they decide which stories really make sense to implement. Maybe your competition just announced something and you need to change your focus. Or else you need to add resources to get it done faster. The team responds in the moment to the problems at hand.
It's about being prepared to make the right decisions at a particular moment to achieve the end goal - a good performance or a good experience.
When I respond to music impulsively and instinctively, the audience usually has a positive response to the performance as feeling natural and fluid; not a choreography or a script. I make it "look easy." The same is true when I do a presentation just speaking to the points without a script. People tell me when I "just talk" that I sound more natural. When I read from a script, it sounds scripted - good, but scripted. Like I'm trying too hard. I'm not prepared - I sound too planned and executional.
In a project with a very defined plan, fixed deadlines and little flexibility, watch how your team acts. People are constantly stressed and are worried if the deadline will be met. The team stops focusing on quality and cares about getting it done now. There is little understanding about solving problems the right away, with flexibility and growth in mind. This is when band-aids happen and in the long-term you have spaghetti systems. No one ever goes back to fix these temporary solutions post-launch - they move on to the next thing. If someone prioritized what needs to happen to make a deadline and get things done the right way, the team would relax, focus on doing good work, and think of better solutions. It's more fluid - and a heck of a lot more fun.
Another way at looking at being prepared: when you drive a car, you are prepared to deal with different situations. If someone cuts you off and there is nowhere for you to go and you can't stop, you don't go looking for your rulebook to get some advice. You handle it on the spot. You just keep moving forward. Admittedly, usually you are pretty scared going through it and are shaky after - but you act in the moment.
There is great comfort in having plans and predictability. In the movie "The Dark Night," The Joker says:
I just did what I do best. I took your little plan and I turned it on itself. Look what I did to this city with a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets. Hmmm? You know... You know what I've noticed? Nobody panics when things go "according to plan." Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it's all "part of the plan". But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!
Although the Joker character is crazy - he has a point. Plans are comforting. They let you feel that someone, somewhere has control and has thought through everything that is happening. And you feel that you will be safe and successful because someone knows what will happen next. But honestly, is that the way plans really work? Is this really reflective of life?
I'm not saying there isn't a sketch of a plan - that's like saying you just dance without music or drive without any destination in mind. That's just wandering aimlessly. You always need to have some type of goal. What I'm saying is that you can't plan for every situation and you have to go with the music - or the situation - and have the confidence to work through it. New, unplanned requirements come up every day. New business and competitive things happen. And yes, that is scary. And you can't plan for any of it.
Agile is about being in the moment. What are the important features for this next iteration? What is needed? It's about the team having self-confidence to respond to the moment rather than create a plan and worry about stories three or more iterations ahead of time when honestly - it won't matter. The music of life and business will change what's going on.