Drama Geek: How Eating Pretend Ice Cream Made Me a Better Scrum Master

About this Publication

Cass Van Gelder admits it: Her parents cringed when she told them she was majoring in theatre. “Ugh! You’ll never find a job!” her mother cried. Fast-forward 20+ years, and not only does she have a job, she has a thriving, fun career at Video Gaming Technologies, Inc. Though it’s not in drama (she does still experience some) she liberally applied her theatrical background and put it to good Agile use. From planning gigantic, theatrical productions on small budgets to acting out difficult conversations, she employed the crazy, fun world of theatre to the wonderful theater of Agile.

1. Learning to play the typewriter

At 20 years old, I picked at an IBM Selectric typewriter like I was being forced to eat liver.

Feeling cobwebs grow across my back, I slumped over the keyboard, jabbing at the raised alphabet.

My career-stopping roadblock was embodied in that typewriter – any typewriter, really – and my unsophisticated attempt at anything above 40 WPM. I jealously watched all the other students blissfully retyping the very important, very pretend correspondences from the law offices of Mr. Smith and Mr. Washington without mistakes, speeding along ever faster each time they sat down.

And there I sat at the keys, plinking along, hunting and pecking, frustrated, and seemingly doing more damage to the typewriter with each pointed gesticulation.

But then it hit me …

Like a cartoon lightning bolt, an idea struck: Keys.

Suddenly, I made a connection. The piano keys; the typewriter keys.

All those horrid summer days spent sweating in Mrs. Abernathy’s basement piano classroom, plinking out nonsensical melodies about kittens and balls, practicing scales, and watching my fingers; those exercises resulted in my learning how to work across the ivories – quickly, deftly, and accurately.

I started slowly, allowing myself to apply the fingerings to my new keyboard – my typewriter. Within minutes, I was zooming out in front, busting through my 4-month long stonewall WPM, rocketing my way to 60 WPM, then 75WPM!

I had taken my artistic background and found a real-world application … and it wouldn’t be the last time.

Fast-forward to my new career as a scrum master and you’ll see how I began to examine at my coaching work with fresh eyes. Like the typewriter, I realized there are fantastic ways to apply my performance background to Agile!


2. That Girl!

After nearly 45 years of onstage work in various productions, I’ve built and managed a continually-growing background in theatre. These experiences included the San Francisco Lyric Opera; performances at San Francisco’s Bill Graham Civic auditorium for over 10,000; large-scale musical theatre productions at the MGM Grand (including the North American Premiere of Jerry Springer: The Opera😉 training and performances with Second City, Inc., starting my own writing and improv troupe Technically Married, and starring in over 100 new and revived musicals and plays in New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas, and more. I have produced, written, and directed many plays, musical experiences, and classes to develop people’s speaking prowess and bring about their confidence.

In recent years, I’ve also coached my Agile teams to winning 4 of the most recent Global Tech Fair Awards, have been awarded 13 Winning Ways awards for my work with various Scrum teams, and collected numerous awards for my writing and presentations. I’ve presented at many conferences, most recently at the Global Scrum Gathering. My articles win awards and are published in collections and newspapers throughout the country. Currently, I’m completing my books, Presenting When You’d Rather Do Laundry, The Counterfeiters, and Tributaries of Lily. The confluence of art and work becomes more seamless every day.


3. Practical Magic … And Application

When you start in theatre, there are generally some ground rules that keep ideas and creativity flowing. For instance:

  • First Ideas

Remember that first ideas are best, especially in improv. Avoid rummaging through the attic of your brain for overly clever thoughts. This can pull you out of the game or process, and prevent you from listening to your team. Often, the first thing that comes out might be one of the most important concepts, too.


  • Listening

Prior to a game, confirm with everyone what you’re listening for on this occasion. Encouraging this behavior helps to verify with team members what’s expected. Avoid tripping people up – that’s not the point and risks the team’s trust in you. Instead, confirm, reconfirm, and set up a comfortable space that encourages listening.


  • Remain Open

Rules of an exercise may change based on the team and their needs. Remain open to that. Riding the wave that comes at you – rebalancing and adjusting – means you make it to shore. Stay too rigid, and you end up underwater.

Remember, just because the last 15 teams did it a certain way doesn’t mean that the new team’s change won’t be valid.


  • Positive, Negative, and the Positively Negative

Encourage the teams to approach brainstorming, planning, and games with the power of “Yes, and …” This means when a team member makes a suggestion, rather than shoot it down immediately, other team members can respond with “Yes, and …” and continue with the elaboration of the original idea.

Saying “No” (or worse, the positively negative “Yes, but…”,) negates the value of the team member’s suggestion and can discourage them from contributing further.


3.1 Improvisation

In improvisational theatre, you learn early on that in improv you constantly must listen. The same is true with our Agile teams. Learning to hear what the team is saying as a whole – and as individuals – can be incredibly important.

As a Scrum Master, you’re looking for body language, changes in tone, and the ever-awesome phrase, “It’s fine,” – the same phrase that says nothing and yet says everything.

In improv, while you might walk on stage with an idea of who you want to be or how you’d like to react, all that can change in a moment if your stage partner goes in a different direction.

For instance, one night, I went on stage with the idea of being a Wal-Mart cashier. I had a rough idea of what I wanted from the character to make her funny, a couple of funny lines I thought about throwing in, and maybe a facial tic or two. However, my stage partner decided his character had a large load of groceries, but he was in the “15 or Fewer” line. If I kept to my original ideas, it would have been stilted. The audience would grimace as we battled onstage for whose idea to follow.

Instead, I let go, and let the first response come to my head. I became the cashier who couldn’t count – anything.

Rather than fight my partner’s ideas, I expanded on them, listening to turns he might make in his conversation. That made him more open to what I suggested and it became easier for him to follow me, too. We surfed the scene, overwhelmed with waves of audience laughter, and ended with a roar of applause.

As a new ScrumMaster, I facilitated my first independent retrospective for a team struggling with many issues. The team lost and gained some team members traded one experienced ScrumMaster for a fairly new one (me), and continued to work a backlog full of nothing but defects – all created by people no longer on the team.

Their feelings were raw. One team member (let’s call him Ted), in particular, was not happy, wanting to control the room more than contribute.

Though I had been trained to write the different topics each team member talked about on the board, Ted came over to me, took the marker from my hand, and began writing on the board.

It was an immediate change from the structure I had learned. Forcing Ted back to what I was familiar with would focus him away from his real issue, which was a perceived slight. It would also put the focus directly on me, creating a possible unnecessary escalation.

Rather than step immediately back in and try to force the meeting back to what I was familiar with, I let Ted write. When he was done, I asked if he wanted to keep the marker, because I would use another; or, would he allow me to use the one he had kept? Why? Because this gave him some much-needed perceived control.

Instead of fighting Ted, I moved with his motion. This allowed him to focus on the issue, so we could unpack where he felt slighted, rather than cause a great explosion of emotion.

Eventually, we managed to create a safe space where he felt comfortable talking about the issue, resolving it with the team, and everyone could move on without fomenting animosity.

In Agile, we balance priorities, responses, and responsibilities. It’s at the heart of the word Agile. We remain flexible and we attempt to keep things steady, at a maintainable pace, and when things shift, we move to keep it even-keeled.

With new information, we re-balance. We choose how to respond, but it’s easier for everyone if we’re open and listening.

You want to remain flexible as you listen, so you can adapt to new information a team member delivers.

As a Scrum Master, being able to surf what comes at you makes it easier on both you and the team member, and it can instill a lot of trust.


3.2 Working with a Limited Budget (or How to Create an Edible Mouse with $1)

How does theatre company make $1 million? They start with $2 million.

Funny though it may be, it’s fairly true. Most repertory, regional, or community theatres struggle to make it from one production to the next. Prop Masters operate on the garage sale mentality – “I need a bowl; this hubcap will do.” You have an obstacle and you had to figure out creative ways around it.

Finding the creative way to remove impediments, that’s what we do as Scrum Masters.

For instance, when I worked as prop master, every night of the show, I needed a mouse that could be eaten on stage. I researched magic tricks that might make it appear as if the character gobbled the rodent, but the director wanted something more realistic – however, he only had a $1 a night to spend on the prop. After some creative thinking, I came up with a low cost, consumable gray mouse using – a Twinkie. With a little food coloring and butter-knife-carving, I created a prop the character could improvise with and then promptly gobble up.

Our group of ScrumMasters wanted to start a Global Tech Fair program where, every 6 weeks, all the teams would have an opportunity to show the work they’ve completed, answer questions, get great feedback, and add a little play to our process. The idea was beyond the sprint review and would eventually involve our remote and international teams. The problem: no budget.

For our very first Global Tech Fair, our ScrumMaster team got together, created the program, copied out the handouts, arranged the rooms, hauled equipment, MC-ed the awards – basically, if it needed to be done, we found a way to make it work with what was on hand.

Following our lead, the teams developed engaging presentations, creating add-on games to keep their audience interested, making homemade puzzles to illustrate their objectives, and reaching out to their users in a way that had been elusive to them prior.

Fast-forward 4 years, and we have a thriving, 3-times-a-year event that includes all our offices across the world, with presentations and selfie prizes, engagement from outside the Research and Development department, and a change in culture that started with no budget at all.


3.3 Working with a Limited Timeframe – and Prioritizing

Hard deadlines are a mainstay of theatre. It’s rare when you can push back an opening night.

As happens when Agile meets with a hard deadline, choices are made. What’s unnecessary falls away. What stays must work – and be on time. Not every team nor product owner may recognize this or is ready to deal with that inevitability. Coaching them to look at closely at the true prioritization of the requirements can help them focus towards their goal.

Theatre troupes will occasionally rent an entire set or costumes show when they don’t have time or money to hire people to create them. One of my troupes did this, but as opening night approached, they found their prepaid set would not arrive until 2 weeks into the performance. Of course, the first thing they did was panic. Tickets were sold, audiences were expected, and reporters were sure to arrive. Opening night couldn’t be moved.

The director and the actors brainstormed the real priorities – the play, the storyline – rather than on what they wished it could be. They refocused and determined they could use props and sets they already had – simple wooden chairs to represent the entire room, changing the lighting to match the more modern look-and-feel. They prioritized against a deadline, and created a more streamlined, effective production.

Moving ahead doesn’t have to mean moving ahead with everything.

As a ScrumMaster in gaming where we show our wares at industry tradeshows, often our backlog can become overwhelmed with all sorts of features that we’d love to have in the next show. For an upcoming tradeshow, the deadline approached with a bulging backlog full of features needed in the final product. However, the final product wasn’t necessarily what would be shown.

Even so, there was a general push to put everything into the product in time for the tradeshow. Finally, the ScrumMasters of those teams encouraged a prioritization conversation amongst the Product Owner and the team. The team looked at the backlog with the Product Owner and determined what had to happen by the deadline.

It was a difficult, but much needed conversation. The result was a tighter demonstration of our work, rather than an empty space at a tradeshow.


3.4 Dealing with Very Different People and Cultures

Theatre attracts all kinds of people – loud, quiet, brash, timid. And, in different countries, it looks, sounds, and expresses itself differently. Bringing together all the diverse backgrounds, viewpoints, and upbringings, can make for quite a production – or a complete disaster.

Theatre taught me how to connect and learn from others. It also taught me to listen to them more closely. Being able to internalize their struggles and triumphs made it easier to understand what was important to them. It helped me see them from an angle I hadn’t know existed.

Invariably in theatre, you have your first day on stage, whether in front of the curtain or backstage. Everyone in show business does. The language only used behind the curtain by actors and crew can be a bit much to absorb and certainly it can be an unnerving experience to have all eyes upon you as you audition for the first time. Just as unnerving can be your first rehearsal for your very first play.

About a year ago, I was cast in Blithe Spirit alongside a wonderful collection of actors. However, only 2 weeks in, the lead actor quit with no notice. As it was around the holidays, the director couldn’t find a replacement easily. Eventually, she found a newcomer who was equally interested and inexperienced.

Before our first read-through of the script, this actor (let’s call him Jack) had no trouble conversing with the rest of the cast, but with his script in front of his face, his speech stalled and sputtered. Though the part called for an English accent, the director wisely striped away that requirement; but, Jack suffered trying to express one phrase, let alone an entire paragraph.

After a week of watching Jack struggle, I talked to the director about using some exercises I had learned in acting classes. We agreed a lack of experience kept him from being able to breakthrough and make a connection between real world and dramatic conversation.

At the next rehearsal, I asked Jack to read the first line of his easiest speech to me, which he did haltingly from behind the play book. I then asked what he thought the character was saying in today’s language, since the play is set in the 1930s. He broke it down simply and casually in a way that sounded familiar and engaging. Then I asked him to look at the first sentence, put the book down, look right at me, and say it just like we were in a kitchen talking.

Smiling, he charmingly said the line without breaking, using the moment to communicate more than he had been able to before. We repeated this throughout the page, recreating a conversation between a husband and wife that had previously sounded like two uneven robots.

Rather than dismissing Jack’s inexperience as a nuisance, we approached it as a teachable moment where both sides learned more about the other one.

In gaming, by comparison, we not only have people from all over the world working with us on- and off-site, we also have people who view the world completely differently based on their roles, such as a developer versus a data scientist.

When I start with a new team, I generally hold back from suggesting or making any changes. Making moves before you understand the dynamics of the team can be dangerous and detrimental to the team. I compare it to having a loud conversation with your friends as you walk into a restaurant. Sometimes, after you clear the door, it takes a minute to realize the whole room is quiet and you’ve become the focus of the room.

Recently, I was added as the ScrumMaster for a team that was deemed “interesting,” which usually is interpreted as “difficult.” As I usually do in these situations, I shadowed the current ScrumMaster through two sprint cycles, adding little to the conversation, but observing the way the team talked to each other, how they handled difficult situations, and how they treated the PO and ScrumMaster. Occasionally, I asked questions, but I was deliberate in how I asked them. They were open-ended questions that invited more than a “yes” or “no” answer. For instance, rather than ask “Have you tried blank?” which invariably limits the response, I would ask “When you tried blank, what happened?”

I paid attention to how they talked about it, if they were willing to talk about it, and I watch how other people in the room responded as they talked about it.

With another team, I knew humor was the easiest way to get through to them. They hid truths between their funny lines and many times, the jokes hid their pain points.

Another thing I observed from this team concerned me more. One of the more dominate team members (let’s call him Chuck) on a 4-person team was shutting out another, newer team member from another country (let’s call him Fred.) Chuck went so far to dominate the planning and backlog refinement conversations that he would interrupt Fred to talk over him and basically tell the rest of the group what he (Chuck) thought Fred thought. Eventually, Chuck referred to Fred in the third person as though he weren’t even in the room.

Fred continued in what he had been taught in his country was a polite manner. He acquiesced to Chuck’s dominance and remained quiet out of respect for Chuck’s position. Chuck viewed this as a confirmation that what he was doing was correct, rather than that this was a cultural difference that was being skewed to his favor.

After I became the ScrumMaster full-time for this team, I slowly changed the conversation – literally. In retrospectives, I called on Fred and asked him direct questions. When Chuck would try to answer for him, I joked with the room that it was amazing how Fred made it so that when I asked a question of him, the answer would jump out of Chuck’s mouth.

During planning, when Chuck referred to Fred as “him” instead of “you,” negating his existence in the room, I directly addressed Fred and jokingly asked how it felt to be referred to in the third person.

For this team, this approach worked and allowed them to break a downward spiraling circle. Chuck began to break his habit of excluding Fred, and Fred began to open up and join in the conversation.


3.5 Sympathizing and Empathizing

Empathy – taking what you have experienced and applying it to a person’s current emotional state – we understand this best. It’s from our perspective, but at least it’s something we can easily comprehend.

Sympathy – creating an emotion or an emotional response without having ever experienced it.

Acting taught me how to look for clues about how a person was feeling, what their subtext was. Our words convey some of our meaning, while our tone and our body language can reveal what we really mean. While there are more than 50 ways to say, “It’s fine,” really, quite often it’s not fine.

For instance, when I played M’Lynn (a mother who loses her daughter to Type 1 diabetes) in Steel Magnolias, I talked to one of my castmates who had lost her son in a car accident. Much like my character, she was a controlled person who felt uncomfortable showing everyone her true feelings, and spoke little about the incident. By watching her, I saw that though she said little, her fingers and gestures told me a story she was not ready to share with words.

Within our Agile teams, this can be extraordinarily important. We encounter many people who feel uncomfortable voicing their feelings or opinions, but display with their body language that they have something they want to share or that should be shared. Working to sympathize, or in some cases empathize, with them may make them feel safer to talk about a difficult issue affecting the team.

In one case, while working with one of my more soft-spoken teams, I learned they were all pretty petrified of the idea of speaking in public. Even the short presentation they planned for the Global Tech Fairs resulted in sheer panic for most of them. As a team, they decided they wanted me to coach them to be better presenters.

I set up a team learning event that included some basic trust exercises, along with some confidence building ones. We moved from exercises the team did together to exercises where individuals created a story based on a word, with each successive person expanding on it. As each person got up, I noticed one team member clenching and unclenching his fists, but smiling the whole time, his white knuckles betraying a message he was not ready to vocalize.

When it came his turn to add to the story, he froze. The first thing that came to mind was the first thing to leave his mind. Sensing the issue was bigger than a quick pep talk, I pulled him out of the situation, let him sit down without continuing, and we moved on to the next person. I didn’t reproach him or tease him. I let him be, and he noticeably relaxed and continued with the rest of the exercises.

Later, we talked about it. He revealed that his struggle was a daily one that even caused him to freeze when ordering in a restaurant.

From that point, I changed our next team learning experience to a pull situation where team members would volunteer to do the exercise rather than my calling on individuals. Eventually, he asked for an exercise and was able to work his way through it. Had I less sympathy – or even empathy – for his situation, I could have missed all his nonverbal cues and forced him into an even more uncomfortable situation, thereby wrecking any trust I might have garnered to that point.

Being aware and in tune to the small ways people communicate can be invaluable.


3.6 Becoming a Jack-of-All-Trades

When you’re on a team of any kind, just doing your work heads down isn’t always going to get the job finished. In theatre, you learn that just because it’s not your job, doesn’t mean you can’t help.

I can now design a set, get blood out of a costume, call cues backstage, and set up gel lighting on a narrow cat walk. You step in where you are needed even if it’s not your job title because the team needs to succeed.

Like our Agile teams, we learn to find ways to help when we’re done. We swarm stories, with everyone contributing all they can, so that we can finish them more quickly, learn more, and help other out.

As Scrum Masters, it’s vital for us to have a level of flexibility to our knowledge base. Being able to quickly move from Armchair Therapist to Impediment Eradicator to All-Around Coach makes the job that much more fun.

For instance, in one day, I facilitated three Retrospectives and Plannings, sat down with a team member to discuss issues he was having with a new Engineering Manager, set up for an upcoming on-site Meetup, lugged a computer setup to another location, reset the same set up after crawling under the new desk, and still managed to come in second at Texas Hold’em Poker for the company’s Game Night.


3.7 Hard work

Even while working a full-time job and raising kids (who I took with me) I worked on productions until the wee hours of the morning, driving up a mountain to an outdoor theatre twice a day, hauling people and props, hammering and screwing together an elaborate set, then striking the same set after a performing both matinee and the last night show.

In theatre, hard work became easier because we all realized a show only happened if we all did what was needed. Check your ego at the door. This may be fun, but it’s still hard.

Working together in Agile, we work better. Instead of needing a hero to save the team come the end of the sprint, we even out the load and make hard work more manageable. As with theatre, we’re all in this together.

At one point, due to unexpected found defects just before a tradeshow, we had teams that opted do something atypical– work over the weekend. While I could do no coding at all, I came in with several other ScrumMasters, organized pizza runs, checked on team members to make sure they had what they needed, ensured that when a block occurred, we resolved it while the team continued swarming the stories. In short, it was the work of an intense sprint, concatenated into an intense weekend.

As Scrum Masters, you find out early that even if you’re not coding side-by-side, your support can be desperately needed, sometimes even just your presence. More than anything, the dedication to the hard work, that’s what’s needed.


3.8 Having Difficult Conversations

Directing means a whole roomful of people just said they’ll follow you …

… which is scary.

As they follow, choices must be made – casting, hiring, designing, costuming, etc. When people are married to their own ideas, it can make for difficult conversations. When your neighbor’s high school daughter auditions with 200 other little girls and only 5 very young parts are open, you sometimes must be the one to explain why she wasn’t chosen.

While it would be easy to quickly respond with a fast email, conveying your regrets to not cast the child, you miss the opportunity to coach the child to the next level.

A good, meaningful conversation about where you saw great potential and where you’d like improvement gives the auditioner something worth working on and some direction.

Without it, they’re left guessing what you want and likely missing the mark again next time.

Understanding how to have constructive conversations gives the auditioner an idea of how to improve for next time, rather than just not being cast.

The same is true for Scrum Masters.

Taking the time to have a conversation with a team member who struggles helps both of you. The team member needs the mentoring and direction, and may be confused by the interactions or reactions from others. Additionally, you need to be able to conduct these conversations to continue having trust with the team member and to help guide him or her farther.

In one instance, one of my teams struggled with getting to meetings on time. Both the team members and I had brought it up during previous retrospectives, but, no matter what the action item to solve it, it didn’t stay solved.

During a new retrospective, I brought it up again about the lateness factor. Overall, there was some mock groaning, but surprisingly one of the team members (let’s call him Brad) commented that he believed being 5-10 minutes late should be acceptable. And he was serious.

I realized a hard conversation needed to happen. I had been flexible and understanding to that point, but I needed to address what he said. Luckily, I happened to be wearing my watch with a second hand that day.

I sat the watch down and asked the team to experiment with me. I proposed we sit there for a full minute – and only a minute – saying nothing, so we could get a better sense of what was being asked of the team. They all agreed.

Fifteen seconds ticked by and Brad said, “Okay, we get the point.” But, we continued. By 30 seconds, it was obvious they were all uncomfortable. Once the full minute was up, they all seemed to exhale as they I’d ask them to hold their breath the entire time.

We talked about what we felt during that one minute, the disrespect, the waste of time, and the uncomfortable nature of not knowing when it would end. Then, I reminded them that what had been asked was 10 times the amount of what they sat through.

Brad apologized, saying he now understood what effect being late had on the team and on himself. Since then, he’s made vast improvements – as has the entire team – to being on time.


4. The Moral of Our Stories

For those of you who are unfamiliar with what pretend ice cream is, I’ll tell you it’s easily one of the most disgusting things to have to ingest. Under hot spotlights on stage, pretend ice cream saves your hands from melted stickiness, but always left me ill afterwards.

Different property masters create pretend ice cream in a variety of ways, but in my experience, the prop master substitutes mashed potatoes with food coloring for ice cream and Mike and Ike candies for sprinkles. Think about that flavor profile.

I can tell you that for every time I had to eat this amalgamation, as hot and melted as the ice cream would have been, the mashed potatoes were equally cold and hard. Occasionally, they were even dusty.

But every time it’s called for, I eat it. It’s certainly not for my digestive health. Rather, it’s for the audience.

For the viewers, it’s a little piece of magic they don’t process. The majority haven’t thought about the body heat in the theatre, or the lights, or the fact the couple on stage has been playing with their banana splits for 5 full minutes without a bit dripping off their spoons. It just happens, completing the overall picture without drawing the audience away from the story.

Much like actors and prop masters, ScrumMasters create worlds that encourage creativity, develop new qualities, and gently guide teams without pressuring them. We find new ways to uplift, new obstacles to remove; with effective substitutions, we clear paths so the way is as smooth as can be without pulling the team members’ focus away.

The magic of these experiences tangle and mesh to each other, fashioning a new, more deeply intense world that’s enhanced by both experiences. The influence of one created a better experience in the other.

And, in the end, I am better for it. And, seemingly, so are my teams.


5. Acknowledgements

Thank you to all the people at Video Gaming Technologies, Inc. (VGT), for allowing me to work especially the ScrumMaster team – Michael Brashier, Al Kraus, Aundrea Raich, Manish Manandhar, Jessica Collins, Kevin Griffis, and Ashish Agarwal – who tolerated my weirdness and worked to make sure I didn’t appear more odd than necessary.

To Stephanie Stewart, who knows her way around words and isn’t afraid to tell me when I’ve run aground.

To my family for being ever-so-patient while I worked long nights and randomly made them text me my ideas while I drove down the road, and especially my husband, Chris Van Gelder, who reminded me that this work was good and I was good and I would make it through all of it, eventually … in one piece.

Thanks, David Kane, my first-ever shepherd who initiated me into this process, I couldn’t have done it without you! Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Copyright 2017 is held by the author.

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