Author: Francis Norton
Last Monday I saw something almost unbelievable – a handful of people on a West End stage, in front of a packed house, improvising an entire musical from audience suggestions, in real time.
Highlights of the show for me were:
- The way the show’s name, setting and musical styles were entirely suggested by real audience members (I offered a suggestion, which was adopted, so I know), and choices resolved by audience applause
- Equally, the aplomb with which non-starters were weeded out (“The inside of a ladies’ lavatory, sir – is that the height of your ambition?”)
- The skills, commitment and creativity that the cast brought to acting, singing, dancing and – on my evening – stage-fighting their way through the numbers
I wasn’t surprised that they got a standing ovation from a packed West End house, but was astonished when three of my second-time-round friends assuring me that it had been just as good the nights they’d previously seen it.
Could agile software development learn something from this display?
Eventually the elation simmered down and, being in the business I’m in, I started to wonder what, if anything, could agile software development and its silo-busting sibling, devops, learn from this astonishing display of time-boxed and client-delighting delivery?
More, I’d argue, than might meet the eye.
First, you need a great process. Agile and Improv share an appearance of being about absence of process, but in both cases this is very much an illusion. The Showstoppers! process is their format, all those things which are the same for every performance: the director’s role, the initial “Cameron Macintosh is on the phone needing a new musical in an hour” scenario, and the set of questions the director puts to the audience to choose the name, setting, musical style and every key aspect of the upcoming performance.
Second, you need great skills. For example, no matter how good the format (or in agile terms, the process) you have to control scope without throttling the client relationship. The director managed to filter out unfunny and / or lavatorial suggestions without losing warmth or tempo. He also turned up the heat on stage by throwing in challenges, like “I’d like this gladiator fight to be beautifully choreographed.” The cast, in turn, showed courage, creativity and a deep understanding of their domain and its musical and dramatic patterns. And the director’s comment that the company had done over 700 performances helped explain the reliability with which they produce these magical results.
An ideal Agile world
Third, you need team thinking and values. Apart from the audience suggestions, the plot and characters are entirely developed by the players, on stage. You might see an actor blink as she suddenly learns from another character that the woman she is having coffee with is her sister, or that she is pregnant by her recently exiled lover, but then she’ll instantly build on this new development. If someone walking in a garden says he hears animals, off-stage actors will leap into action and “animals” will step, gallop or swoop on to the stage. The director and musicians (like, in an ideal Agile world, the product owner and the ops team) are co-located on stage with the actors partly, I imagine, to add to the drama, but partly, I’m sure, because they just wouldn’t have the same communication quality if the director was in the Royal Box and the musicians in the orchestra pit.
Developing a responsive product
For me, the evening made me realise how much an apparently “anti-process” like an improv format or a devops practice does in fact depend on internalised skills and processes to achieve a polished but mindful responsiveness to their clients’ requirements.