“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
I decided to return to my series - how improv belly dance is a lot like Agile. I know, it's a weird comparison; however, both have something in common - how do you respond to a sudden, unplanned change? That is the nature of Improv! And Agile is a framework that addresses this too.
Here are some past articles that make the connection:
- Improv and Agile Part 1: Being Prepared
- Improv and Agile Part 2: Teamwork makes the experience
- Improv and Agile Part 3: Limits
Whenever I perform improv I'm experimenting, even if I'm dancing to a song I know really well. There is always some nuance about the performance:
- The musician switches up the song to include something I have never heard before
- The floor has something on it that it didn't have a couple of days ago
- The audience is different, sending out a different vibe - some may not want to watch me, or the audience is thrilled to be there
- My costume may be reinforced not to break, or I may have forgotten to check it (or check a part of it) and it loosens
Every dance experience has something new to experience - either artistically or logistically.
And when you experiment, you have to have 2 things: self-confidence to try and preparation to succeed or fail.
I have been told that some of my best performances came out of my improv work. I think it's because I'm not overly thinking about what I'm doing - I'm responding to the current situation. Sure, I think about what I could do a few moves out, but mostly I'm just responding to the music. I shut down my ego and focus on being in harmony with the musicians.
Improv performances are a lot like Agile - the business requirements change and you respond. You and the team have enough confidence to pick up a story, try to solve the problem, and just do it, making sure you keep the solution open ended enough to add more features. Usually, this works out well.
However, not every decision you make is going to be awesome. Mistakes are made.
- For improv: You land on the wrong foot and get off-balance during a spin. Or you don't read your audience right and respond to the music in an awkward way. Or you stop - for no reason. Your brain just stopped.
- For Agile: The prioritization was wrong. There was incorrect technical direction and the team wasn't able to scale the product. Someone on the team didn't collaborate as much as he should have and worked by himself and inadvertently blocked the team. The UX approach tested poorly and has to be completely rewritten.
And you may think this is a result of the nature of improv and Agile - if you planned better, this wouldn't have happened. However, no matter how much planning you do - you can't avoid failure. There is no possible way to think through every situation.
As an analogy, if we were to think through every situation before taking action - driving would be impossible. We would need to memorize a 4-inch manual that documents what to do in every situation with another car. Needless to say, this would make more accidents - people would be trying to remember exactly what to do. It's just not realistic. You have to trust your instincts and intuitions sometimes to make changes now.
According to Adapt, “success comes through rapidly fixing our mistakes rather than getting things right first time.”
--99U, "Why Success Always Starts With Failure," Sarah Rapp
However, not all failure is bad - failure can be a good thing.
- To do good work, you have to try a lot. And when you try, you may not get it quite right. According to Malcolm Gladwell, it takes about 10,000 hours of doing something to be an expert - that's a lot of chances to fail. It's about trying and practicing. Even after that 10,000 hours of training to be an expert - you can still try and make a mistake.
- It shows that you stepped out of your comfort zone to innovate. When you are in your comfort zone you are doing something you have done every day. There are certain moves that I'll do during a performance - my signature moves so to speak - and every now and then, I respond to the music with something out of character. Sometimes I bomb. Sometimes I do something amazing. Same with Agile. I've been on teams that try something new - and it works out great. Sometimes - not so much. Trying something new shouldn't be punished because who knows what could happen from it. There could be a great discovery for a product or an amazing efficiency.
- Something good could be created out of the failure. Post-its are a great example of this. Here is the story from Wikipedia:
In 1968, a scientist at 3M in the United States, Dr. Spencer Silver, was attempting to develop a super-strong adhesive. Instead he accidentally created a "low-tack", reusable, pressure-sensitive adhesive.  For five years, Silver promoted his "solution without a problem" within 3M both informally and through seminars but failed to gain acceptance. In 1974 a colleague who had attended one his seminars, Art Fry, came up with the idea of using the adhesive to anchor his bookmark in his hymnbook. Fry then utilized 3M's officially sanctioned "permitted bootlegging" policy to develop the idea. The original notes' yellow color was chosen by accident, as the lab next-door to the Post-it team had only yellow scrap paper to use.
Without this "mistake" or "failure" - we wouldn't have these delightful yellow sticky notepads to place on computers, desks, books, etc.
- And when you fail, it's not about the failure - it's how you respond to and recover from it. Sometimes we fail and sit in our misery, contemplating the fail. Sometimes we fail and bounce back by changing direction and still trying to make something happen - and that's the response we should have. When I dance and do something wrong, I just don't stop and stare at the audience. I keep going as if nothing ever happened. And most times, the audience don't even know it was a mistake. Technical teams joke about such things being "features." And sometimes people don't even notice what happened - in fact, they like it.
- It can be a lesson to the team to be open to all options and ideas rather than basing a decision upon 1 or 2 voices. Sometimes failure happens because there are only a few strong voices on the team - not enough minds are involved in creating a solution. When I dance, this happens when I don't really listen to the music and expect what will be next (I listen to the melody more than the beat) rather than live what is next (possibly a neat twist to the song). Same with Agile projects - an off-beat idea may be rejected by a few because the rest of the team doesn't see what that person sees. When the "plan" fails, the team usually comes around and learns to listen to that person more.
- Then again, is it really failure? Isn't it really learning? There is a belief that everything we do is perfect and leading us to where we need to be. Our ability to achieve great things is only limited by our knowledge. And the path we take to reach a solution is most important to reaching a "better" answer. It is a powerful idea and repositions what "failure" is. We all don't know everything - and every day we learn something new. And maybe we need this failure to get to something else?
- It shows that we have enough self-confidence and trust to take responsibility, admit we were wrong and change. It's easy to continue down a wrong path and keep making mistakes. It takes guts to admit that you were wrong, someone else is right and you must change direction. When an Agile team changes direction - the team is taking responsibility for the problems and correcting course to make a great product. When I perform and I mess up on stage, I own it and fix it and salvage the performance.
There is a perception that a well-defined, detailed plan will give you automatic success because you thought through everything. That's just not true. Depending on how you define success or failure, you may stop a great innovation from happening, stop team learning, continue a team structure that doesn't include the entire team, or a number of other lessons.
The beauty of improv and Agile is that you can always repair a mistake or "failure." It's how you respond to that mistake or "failure" that can make you shine.
I just realized that I write about my belly dance activities quite a bit but never really share them with you.