In This Video

As Agile Practitioners, we strive to make ourselves, our team and our delivery better. We can do this by being open to learning new ideas from other disciplines. Jessie’s keynote, “Individuals, Interactions and Improvisation” will be fun and interactive. In it, Jessie will share stories and exercises from the world of Improvisation.

There are many parallels between agile team principles and the principles of Improvisation. Effective improvisers give their teammates unconditional support. They practice active listening and accept and build on each other’s ideas. Jessie will explore these ideas and more. She will help and guide you in making your agile interactions more effective.

Jessie founded The Improv Effect in 2007. Her goal was to help businesses reach their full potential through interpersonal-communication skills training. They use an array of experiential techniques to transform teams and organizations. These cover teamwork, creative problem solving, on-boarding, presentation skills, and product development ideation sessions. Jessie also recently published a book called “CTRLShift: 50 Games For 50 ****ing Days Like today.”


Jessie Shternsh: Hi everybody, how are you? Hello. I’m Jessie Shternshus. I’m really excited to be here with you guys. My talk today is called, “Individuals, Interactions, and Improvisation.” I thought I’d start by telling you a little bit about me and my background and how I wound up here.

Let’s start with my company. About seven and a half or eight years ago, I started my company called the Improve Effect. We go around the world working with people on communication, collaboration, and creative problem solving. Before that I had a bunch of very interesting jobs that I thought I’d tell you about, so you can see what led up to me starting my own company. Let’s go in backwards order because why would I go in forwards order?

Right before I started my company I was a first grade teacher. I really loved teaching. I still do to this day. In fact, I feel like facilitating and coaching is very much being a teacher. The school system left a little something to be desired. I felt you had to teach to robots in a way. It didn’t fit my style. I really like the idea of everybody learning in a really different way, and so I was turned off by that and wanted to find something that I could do on my own.

Before that, I worked in television, and in fact, I worked with these fuzzy dudes, the Muppets. I lived in New York, and I worked at Sesame Street. I actually started as an intern there, and then I got brought on to be a writers assistant on a show called Sesame Street English, which was to teach English to kids in China and Japan. This was an incredible group of creative people. It seems very simple the shows that they put together because they’re for kids, but it’s actually really hard to design a show that is not only for young kids but also the parents that watch it. It appeals to people on really different levels. This taught me a lot about creative problem solving, and how to speak to different audiences.

Then, before that I was in college, and I worked for a talent agency. By talent I mean I did like balloon animals, and I was great at birthday parties, fantastic at them. Then this one day I got a call, and they were like, “We really need you.” I was like, “Oh, they finally realized I’m more talented than balloon animal.” They said, “We want you to be an orange.” I was like, “I’m your girl.” The idea of it was Minute Maid had called up the talent agency, and they wanted somebody to dress in the blow up orange doll costume, and I was it.

It got even better because then they said, “We’re opening up a new Walmart right outside Tampa, and we want you to stand in front of the Minute Maid juice like an orange,” I’m like, “Yes.” Because I’m an improvisor, so I just say yes to these things. I went in the back, and I blew up my orange costume. I had these lovely high tops, and straw looking tights which I don’t understand because there was also a straw up here. It’s very confusing. There was straws at the bottom and straw at the top. Then they said, “Just so you know, you can speak to people.” I’m like, okay, this is confusing. How does an orange speak?

I was like, I think an orange probably has a like a squeaky voice, so I was like, “Hello.” I sat there with my hands like this. They almost didn’t reach out the side. This little boy comes up to me, and he’s like, “Hi.” I’m like, “Hi.” We talk. We have this fantastic conversation, and he goes and tells his mom, “There’s a talking orange. There’s a talking orange, mom, come see.” The mom comes up, and I just go like stone cold silent. Just because I was bored. Yeah, so then the guy got kind of mad, the boy, and he took his mom’s shopping cart and started chasing me around the Walmart. I’m like the orange, like “Whoa.” That job didn’t last very long.

That gives you a little history about the things that led up to me starting my own company. I want to tell you a little bit about my inspiration as well. I’m a mom to these two lovely girls, and I’m also a wife. My girls give me inspiration every day to look at things in a creative way. They look at things from a totally different perspective, and they’re super inspiring. My husband is very supportive. It’s hard when you own your own company. You’re traveling a lot, and if you don’t have that kind of support at home, it is kind of difficult. I’m lucky that I have all that going on, so I felt like I needed to give a shout out to my family, my peeps.

Let’s go on. I’ve told you the kinds of things I did before I started my company. All this time, when I was the orange, when I was a teacher, and far beyond that, I have been doing improve since I was about 10 years old. My parents signed me up for an improve class, and I basically never stopped. I love it. I still love it to this day. When I decided, “Okay, you know, I think I want to teach, but I want to do it my own way,” and I thought that I would start by just putting a class out locally. I’m from Jacksonville, so I put a class, pretty scrappy, pretty lean, and hoped that people would come. I got on Craigslist. Whatever free things, I got 50 free cards on Vistaprint, or whatever, and hoped I had a business.

I started by testing this idea to see if people would come. Luckily they did. My first couple classes I had about maybe five, six students. Eventually five or six grew into seven or eight, and the classes got bigger. The really interesting thing was that they said to me, “You know what? We need these skills that you’re teaching for work.” That got me really excited because I knew having done improv my whole life that I had an advantage in a lot of circumstances because I have been trained to really listen to people. I have been trained to think on the spot. I’ve been trained to collaborate, and all those things I had learned in improv. I use them beyond the stage all the time.

I knew it was true, but I didn’t want to spoon feed them the answers. I wanted my customers to come up with the answers on their own. I wanted them to take ownership in that idea, and the great thing is they did. They didn’t want to be performers, they wanted to use the skills at work. They were seeing the idea of applying it. One of my first clients actually was a software development company called Hash Rocket that’s in Jacksonville, and because they were in town I worked with them pretty regularly. I was there probably every other week. I really got to know them and I kept hearing these things. I was hearing like, “Okay, we’re going to go do some story boarding, and then let’s do the stand up real quick before Jessie comes and we do our improv.” I heard Agile this and Agile that.

I was like, “What is this thing they’re talking about?” I love this place. I love these people, and they keep using all these words that I’ve never heard of before, and I was really curious because I wanted to understand my customer and their language. As any good citizen of the world would do, I went home and googled it. I found the Agile manifesto, and I said, “Wait a second. This is kind of like the improv manifesto.” There were so many similarities, so many. It was like the same tenets. We’re going through the same things. I was like, “This is so interesting. No wonder I love being in the development, design industry.” It’s like the two creative types of minds mashed together make something really cool.

It’s interesting now. I go into companies all over the place. We talk about what is Agile, and I’ll help work with people, helping their Agile teams, and helping them communicate and collaborate. When I introduce the concept of Agile, some of the companies are like, “Ah.” It’s like the hands of God are touching, and it’s like the best thing they’ve ever heard of. They’re like, “Yes, tell me more about the Agile.” I’m like, “Yes, they love me and my Agile ways.”

Then there are some people. I come into other companies, and this is more like what I get. They stick their head in the sand. They’re good with their waterfall. They really don’t want to change. They’re a large enterprise. Maybe they’ve heard of Agile, maybe they’ve tried it and failed miserably. Something about it makes them want to run and hide. What’s interesting about this, is it’s very similar to what happens when I introduce improv as well.

These are the things that stand out to me about Agile. Agile development is about being flexible, and it’s about the team being ready for unexpected changes at any time, and it’s about iterating rapidly and finding out what’s happening in small releases, and it’s about continuous improvement. How can we be better each time? This is working, but how can we keep pushing? These are the things that really appeal to me, and I hope to get those people with their heads in the sand out.

Like I said, I go into companies, and then I introduce the idea of improv because that’s my background. I usually start by saying, “When you hear the word improv what do you think of, and how does it make you feel?” You guys tell me. When you hear the word improv, what does it make you think of? Anything? What? Say it again? Comedian. What else? Improv.

Audience: Fun.

Jessie Shternsh: Fun. What else? Off the cuff. Great. Well, since I work with a lot of developers this is usually what happens. I say improv, and they all of a sudden have asthmatic symptoms even if they didn’t have asthma before the session. They kind of freak out. They’re waiting for me to turn around so they can find the nearest salida and just run. I’m very aware of that. That’s okay.

Then I’ve got other people. They’re like, “Is nice.” Those are usually outliers in my case. They’re very excited. They’ve done improv before. They’ve never done it, but they’re just the kind of people who jump up, and they’re like, “Yes, I want to be your first volunteer.” I’m hoping we have some Sacha Baron Cohen’s in the audience today. I don’t want to see too many barf bags being breathed into or inhalers.

These are the things that I think about when I think about improv in a nutshell. Improv is the practice of reacting, and making and creating something in the moment. Because of this, we invent new thought patterns, new ways of thinking, new products. What I love is the way that they go together.

This talk today is about how can we be better Agile practitioners? How can we learn things in unexpected places from unexpected places in different industries? Why do we need to invent all new things when there might be somebody that’s already doing something that would complement what you’re doing at work? I think there are a lot of similarities between Agile and improv that I want to share with you. I’m going to do that today by giving you a little taste of the kinds of things that I do when I work with people.

I’ll give you some stories, some case studies, but I’m also going to have you do some exercises with people here. My hopes for you are that not only do you meet somebody new today that you can talk to afterwards because I think that is one of the most important parts of a conference is the relationships and people that you meet. And I want you to have some tools that you can take back with you, and say, “Wow, this would be really cool to do at my next stand up meeting,” or, “You know what? My team is struggling, and I think this would work to get them collaborating better.” Okay, sound good? All right. Love you.

All right, so in Agile we say, “Keep moving forward,” and in improv we say, “Yes, and.” In Agile we say, “Respond to change,” and similarly in improv we say, “Be present and reactive.” In Agile we say, “Honor the vision over the plan,” and in improv we say, “Operate unscripted.” In Agile we say, “Fail fast.” In improv, it’s all about the way we use mistakes as possibilities and new opportunities. In Agile, we talk about how do we collaborate with customers? In improv, my clicker doesn’t work. There we go. We use the audience’s perspective. We get their feedback. In Agile we do scum retrospectives, and at the end of a show in improv we actually do a troop retrospective.

Do you see why I opened up my google search and found the Agile manifesto that I was like, “Huh, these things are so similar. I wonder if I took some exercises that are from my background, and mashed them into things that I’ve learned from being in the dev community, and made them into something really useful.” Here you can see … Let me go back, sorry. There you can see all the comparisons of how they line up, and how similar they are. What we’re going to do through the talk is we’re going to to through each of those tenets, and I’m going to either tell you a story, or we’re going to do an exercises so that you learn how to experience what we mean by those tenets versus I just sit here and tell you that it’s great. All right? I want you to see that it’s awesome.

Let’s start with individuals. First of all, I want you to know that we are all improvisers, all of us. Many times I talk to people, and they’re like, “I’m so envious of what you do, but the improv thing really scares me.” I tell them that you’re improvising everyday, actually. You don’t have to do improv just for comedy, but you do have to improvise the interactions that you have everyday.

This is a quote from a book that I finished writing in April. It says, “There is no script or formula to deal with the shift that happens every day. Every moment is a new moment.” Basically, what I’m saying is shift happens. The book is called Control Shift, and it’s all about the way that we can shift or be Agile in a controlled environment.

The first tenet was keep moving forward. I mentioned earlier the idea of yes, and. How many of you have heard of yes, and before? Great. That’s why I love Agile people. You’re so great. Right, so just so we’re all on the same page, in improv yes, and is about validating what other people are saying. The yes is important. That’s the validation. Yes, I’ve heard you, and I agree with you. The and is just as important. There’s a reason why it’s not just yes. The and needs to be there because what it does is it says, “Not only do I agree and validate what you said, but I am so excited by it, and I am so inspired by it, that I’m going to build ideas forward. I’m going to push things forward with you together.”

This is a great concept. In improv, we’re always about making our teammates look good. In fact, we have a saying that goes with yes, and, and we say, “Make your teammate look good, and you look great. Make your teammate look bad, and you look worse.” It’s all about setting other people up for success, and then that success will come back to you. I just love that idea.

I thought what we’d do is start with a little exercise. If you’re sitting next to somebody, if you could introduce yourself in a second. I’m going to explain the thing, and then introduce yourself. If you’re sitting by yourself, maybe there’s somebody behind you, but I would love for everybody to participate. Like I said, improv is all about working as a team. It is not stand up comedy. It is about collaboration. What you’re going to do is I would like you to, after you introduce yourself, you’re going to build a fake memory together. You’re going to be reminiscing about something that actually never happened. All right, and it’s going to be fantastic which is why I call it good times.

This is how it works. I’m going to play two people just because I’m so talented, not really. You’re going to see. I’m going to set you up for success because I’m going to bomb probably at this. Here it goes. All right, so the first person will say, “You remember when we … ” Then they’re going to start building out an idea. “You remember when we went on that cruise last year, the river cruise?” Even better, “Remember when we went on that river cruise last night?” Person B goes, “Yes, and the tables were so lovely, and we had such great drinks.” “Yes, and then I accidentally spilled a drink on your lap.” “Yes, and you just casually stuck your napkin over your lap so nobody would see?” “Yes.”

The idea is you’re just going to go back and fort creating a fake good time together, and I’m going to give you like a minute or two to just go crazy. What I want you to do though, is I want you to really use that tenet of yes, and. If you see that you wanted it to go in a different direction, too bad. You must let it go wherever it goes. Understand? All right, ready? Go.

All right. How was that? Everybody have a good time? Yeah, all right fantastic. If you felt like I cut you off too early, you now have a new friend that you can play this game with at lunch. You’re welcome. How was it? How was that? Was it good? Was it surprising? Was it inappropriate? I hope not. Okay, a little bit, little bit, little bit.

All right, so the idea of yes, and is if you’re open to not forcing an agenda on people, then you will be usually delighted or surprised, and you will see a whole new perspective just like this turtle. Next time you’re working with an Agile team be open to saying, “Yes, and,” and notice. Notice, and be self-aware. Am I that person that every time we get together to have a conversation, or every time we get together to collaborate and ideate on something, on our product, am I always the one shutting down people’s ideas? If that’s you, just take note, and practice this tenet. Do you actually need to use the words yes, and? No.

Once you practice it, it becomes a part of who your are, then use words that are similar. I don’t want people turning into these yes, and robots, but it’s the idea of it. The idea is that you know that by saying no, the response is getting people to be on their defense, or they just shut down completely. That’s unfortunate because some of the people who might have the best ideas may be the people not talking. What this does is it creates an environment and energy where everybody’s positive. You could hear the room. That’s what it does in such a quick way.

All right, so respond to change. That’s our next tenet. We’re going to do another game, and it’s going to be fabulous. Here’s the idea. What you’re going to do is this is called superhero and sidekick. I do this exercise to talk about the ways that we can respond to change. When we get requirements, and then all of a sudden our stakeholders and our clients say something different, and then we just have to go with it.

Here’s what you’re going to do, and I definitely need you guys to listen while I’m doing this because there’s a couple different iterations of the exercise as we move along. The first thing we’re going to do is everybody has a piece of paper, and hopefully a pen. What I want you to do at the top of the paper, at the very top, I want you to write the name of a superhero that’s like a rect, that never made it to the comic books. Like Captain Boxcutter or something, probably something more fabulous than that. It could be anything, and just the name. Please just write, that’s it, the name of your superhero. Captain Lavalier. I don’t know. Some name. I’ll give you about 30 seconds or so to write that down, maybe a minute. The bigger reject the better. Also, whatever you write is fine, so don’t get in your head like, “Oh, I can’t think of anything.” Just okay around you. Put Captain Chairperson. Just use what you have. You don’t have to be brilliant.

Everybody pretty good? Yeah, yeah. Couple more seconds. All right, so here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to have you pass the paper to somebody semi close by, but that could be behind you, five people down, whatever. Then when I say, “Stop,” you should have a new paper in your hand. Everybody start passing, and make sure you get a new paper. Do not keep your own. Keep it going. Keep it going. Okay, about five more seconds. Five, four, three, two, one. All right, find your seats.

Okay, so hopefully you have a gigantic reject in your hand. Here’s what you’re going to do. On the back of the paper, you’re going to write the name of that reject superhero’s sidekick, so who goes with Captain Boxcutter? Probably like, Cardboard Man, or something. On the back, you’re going to yes, and them, and who is that person that they go fight crimes with, okay? Write that at the top of the other side of the paper. If you have no idea what they wrote because their handwriting is poor, then you know what? Go with it. Like I said. Use what you have. You’re like, “And the sidekick Can’t Read Your Handwriting Man.” Whatever you want to write. Don’t worry about it. It’s just a game. Again whatever you write is correct. We’ve never seen these superheros before, so you can not have a wrong answer if you participate.

All right, so take like 10 more seconds to write that sidekick. Okay, so it’s going to get chaotic again, but that’s all right. You’ve noticed my style at this point. You’re going to take that paper that now has a reject superhero and a sidekick, and I want you to pass it to somebody else, and they are going to illustrate the superhero and the sidekick. You’re going to do both. Go ahead, and pass. Pass, pass, pass. Pass, pass, pass. All right, 10 more seconds. Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, and one. All right, find a seat. You can have like a minute to do your best doodle. It doesn’t have to look perfect. It can be a stick figure, or a masterpiece. It’s up to you. Take a minute, and play off of what you have in your hands. You’re yes, and-ing them.

Yes, you’re going to draw both. You’re going to illustrate in your best doodle, tap into that kindergartner in there, and draw your best impression of what that reject superhero and sidekick look like I your mind. Take another minute. Again, it’s just so that you learn the exercise more than do it perfect. If you get finished early, and I want to tweet it out at the improv effect, your amazing masterpiece, I would love to see it because obviously I can’t see all 2,000 people’s masterpieces. You can do #rejectsuperhero whatever you want to do. I don’t know. All right, you need about maybe one more minute to finish it up. If you finish then, I don’t know, add a cape or something, or super cool high heels.

All right, so what I want you to do now, is go ahead and you don’t necessarily have to get out of your seat, but just pass that beautiful masterpiece to somebody else so they’re not holding the one they just drew. Okay? Then once you did that … Everybody should just have a new one in their hands. Great, so go ahead and look at what you received.

Okay, so can I have somebody who just loves the thing that landed in their hands that could stand up and share what they got? Obviously not the picture, necessarily, but just the two superheros? Is there anybody who wants to read theirs? Anybody? Yeah, right here. Non-superman.

Audience: And Disappointed Boy.

Jessie Shternsh: And Disappointed Boy. Fantastic, great, great. Who’s got another one they want to read? Somewhere close so I can hear you? Anybody else have one they want to read? Anything is good? Who else has got one? What? Yeah.

Audience: Captain Joke Man.

Jessie Shternsh: Captain Joke Man.

Audience: Junior Peppermint.

Jessie Shternsh: And then Junior Peppermint. Of course, of course the peppermint goes with Captain Joke Man. What else? Yeah, right there.

Audience: Captain Taxi Driver.

Jessie Shternsh: Captain Taxi Driver.

Audience: Doctor Dispatch.

Jessie Shternsh: And Doctor Dispatch. I saw a hand right here too. Did you want to read yours? One of you guys? Yeah, anybody else want to try it? Oh good, we have a mic now. Somebody else? Somebody else? There we go. Let’s do like two more. One more after this.

Audience: Super Slug, and Awesome Turtle.

Jessie Shternsh: Yes, they definitely go together. I like the slow theme. Very nice. One more, one more, who’s got one they want to share? Anybody? There’s one right there. Captain what? Captain Opius?

Audience: Obvious.

Jessie Shternsh: Obvious, Captain Obvious, and what? What was the sidekick?

Audience: Captain Obvious.

Jessie Shternsh: Do they have a sidekick? Or they’re just a loner?

Audience: No, no.

Jessie Shternsh: They’re by themselves, so they suck because nobody even goes with them. I love it. Captain Obvious is like, “Obviously I don’t need a sidekick, you idiots.” All right, perfect, so hopefully you had fun. The idea to this, like I said, is the tenet about how do respond to change? You can reject it, or you can embrace it. You can see that when you collaborate with a group of people sometimes it’s delightfully surprising, and you get to somewhere you wouldn’t have been able to get if you had worked by yourself like Captain Obvious. He didn’t get very far.

Moving on, interactions. Another part of improv and Agile that appeal to me is how to put together an Agile team or an improv troop, and how do you find the right people. If you are lucky enough to get to build your team from scratch, or your improv troop from scratch, what are the things that you’re thinking about, and what are you taking into consideration? I feel like a lot of times I talk to teams, and they’re say, “Oh, my people, they’re so gifted, they’re fantastic developers, some of the best in the world, but they can’t quite get along.”

A lot of times it goes back to the way you put together the team because maybe you just looked at the technical skills, and you didn’t think about the whole person. In improv what we do is we try in figure out how do each of those people work? We want to understand their values and their habits and their skills. We also want to know what is their learning style, what are their interests, and what are their hobbies? We want to understand that we have a group of diverse team members. We don’t want the same guy six times on a team. That just doesn’t work. It’s the same way it doesn’t work in Agile.

How do you find the right individuals? If you’re putting together a diverse team, are you thinking through all those things when you’re putting them together? Once you found the right individuals, what do you do to make them the best that they can be? Well, these are the cast of characters that I have in my improv troop, and it doesn’t mean we have to dress up in costumes to be fantastic, but it just makes us extra special. We get together once a week, and we work as a team, and we rehearse. People say, “Well, I thought you did improv. What do you mean you rehearse?” What we’re rehearsing is not scripting out the dialogue. What we’re rehearsing is the way that we work together. We’re getting comfortable with what are these people’s strengths and weaknesses? How do they work? What are their gifts? What are their talents? Where do they fall short?

We’re building a team of trust, and we’re creating an environment where mistakes are okay because we see them as opportunities to learn something. We’ve created this great environment and team so that we all work together, and we have a shared vision. I love this. The best Agile teams have a vision, and can improvise to get there. They haven’t scripted out how everything’s going to go, how all the sprints are going to go, and how everything’s going to go perfectly, but they have a vision, and they know where they’re headed, and then they improvise in whatever the moment needs for them to work together. They know each other so well that that’s not a problem.

This is the idea of honoring the vision over the plan. In my group, we do an improv show locally in Jacksonville. This is a picture from one of our shows. What we do is kind of like Whose Line Is It Anyway. Any of you familiar with Whose Line? Yeah. Yeah, improv. It’s a short form type of improv. There’s short form and long form improv. Our show is short form, so we have the vision for our show is we’re going to do probably five to eight improv games, and then the last game will be something where we interview somebody from the audience, and we ask them about their worst date.

On one particular night that I remember I was in charge of doing the interview. This is very much like a customer interview, so you’re asking open ended questions, and you’re getting them to tell a story. The rest of my troop, just like you would if you were going out to get feedback on your product, the rest of the people with you are really actively listening, and they’re picking up on everything. We are trained to pick up on what people are saying, and what they’re not saying. We’re reading their body language, their vocal tonality. Every little thing is something that gives us the power to do what we need to do nest to build the product.

This particular night we call up this woman named Sarah, and I ask here, “So when was your worst date?” She said, “Oh, it was when I was in college.” Then I go, “Oh, did you live on the dorm?” Then I was like, “Wait, wait. Not on the dorm, did you live in the dorm?” Clearly I made a mistake, like who in their right mind would live on a dorm. Then I carried on, and my troop’s still listening very intently.

I want to teach you an exercise we do about listening. With the person next to you, you’re going to have like two minutes or so to play this game. It’s called last letter conversation, and it’s about how can you actively listen, and pay attention the whole time. Not just force you’re agenda into a conversation, but really play off what was given. Here’s the idea. The first person will … I’ll play two people again. You guys are going to think I have split personality disorder at the end of this thing.

The first person, person a, will say … Let’s talk about the conference. That’s your topic, so, “Are you guys enjoying Agile 2015?” That ended with an end, the very last letter of what I said. Person B will respond, “Nah, I’m really tired. I haven’t slept in a long time, so I’ve just been up in my hotel room to be honest.” “Too bad, this conference is amazing.” “Good, I’m glad you said that so maybe I’ll get some sleep tomorrow night, and then I’ll be at all the sessions tomorrow.” “Whoa, don’t go too crazy or anything.”

All right, so that’s the idea. Again, it’s the very last letter of what the person says is the first letter of the other person’s response. You need to listen all the way through, and then respond. I want you to take note. Was there an obstacle that got in the way, or did it work? Your topic is the conference. You have two minutes to try this exercise. Go ahead.

All right, everybody do good at that exercise? Yeah? All right, excellent. You guys are going to play for the rest of the time. All right, listen up. How ironic that I need you to listen. All right, so weird. I just taught you that. Great, so hopefully you were able to play that game successfully. How many of you felt like not so much? I didn’t play it as successfully. The constraint got in the way. That’s fine. How many of you felt like it was your partner’s fault? Okay, great, great. It totally was.

If we were to play this game again, which we’re not, but if we were, and if this is something you want to teach, maybe you feel like the people that you’re working with could get better at active listening, you would play it again, and you would say, “Okay, what I want you to do is this time not only do I want you to do the last letter, but I want you to think about your partner, and I want you to set your partner up for success.” Think about the ways that when you just took care of yourself, you kind of left your partner out there hanging. Maybe you ended on E every time. Just a thought. I know you all. I just know you all.

That’s the idea. Again, I feel like if your team can’t communicate, and they can’t actively listen, then how do you expect them to do the rest of the things that they’re doing during the day.

Let’s get back to the show. Like I said, I had interviewed Sarah. We’ve established that she’s in college. She’s in a dorm, and it turns out that this date’s like a complete cheapskate. Every time they go on a date he disappears before they have to pay, and then she’s ends up having to pay. That’s the story. Great guy, yeah. The troop then immediately takes that customer interview and produces a product which is the game. In real time, they are then starting to reenact what it is they heard Sarah say.

The scene opens up, and Justin, who’s one of my guys, he starts going like this, like he’s climbing a ladder. I’m like, “Oh, God.” He climbs a ladder, and then there sits Amy, who’s playing Sarah. He says, “Hey, hey Sarah. How come you live on a dorm?” I’m like, “Thanks, guys.” Instead of denying it because she’s a yes, and-er, she goes, “Oh, I live up here because tuition’s really expensive, and my parents couldn’t pay for the dorm, so I get free rent up top.” Again, instead of ignoring the elephant in the room, or the mistake that was made, they embraced it, and it actually became a great opportunity. The audience loved it. They loved it.

We saw again that that mistake was a golden opportunity to change perspective. What did we do but we embraced failing fast. That’s what I told you before. When we meet on Monday nights part of what we do is we get people comfortable with seeing mistakes as opportunities.

This is a little thing that I do with people just to get them comfortable. It’s called failure high fives. Basically what you do is you go up to the person next to you, and you each like confess of some terrible mistake that you made, or it could be like small. With your new best friend now that you have from the conference, who’s next to you or behind you, or whatever, I want you to confess something. It can be as little as like, “I spilled milk on my leg this morning,” to as big like, “I caused a car accident,” which I hope did not happen. Whatever you want to share. Then you both are going to like, “Woo-hoo.” You’re going to high five each other like, “Yeah, best mistake ever.”

It’s really fun, trust me. There’s nothing better than like partying down for the failure parade. You have like exactly one minute for each of you to share some tragedy, or small mistake, then I want to see … If you need to like get up, and like, “Woo,” chest bump. Whatever you like, just do it. Ready? One, two, three, share your failures.

All right, all right, yes, yes. Okay, everybody good? They feel like much better about themselves? All right, so what I want you to do now … Okay, wow, these people are like … They’re all like mistaking around the table. Next time you see your friend at another session, and you just like make eyes with them like, “Yeah, you know I failed.” You can slow-mo run to them and high five. I mean, anytime you see somebody today, maybe you make a mistake right in front of them, embrace it. Like I said, instead of thinking as the most awful thing in the world, think of it as a way to change perspective. There are so many fantastic ideas that came out of people making mistakes, and no good ideas come out of status quo.

I go into so many companies where the energy, and the culture is you can’t make a mistake at all. It’s not allowed. It’s unfortunate because there are probably some geniuses in there that could have done something really amazing, and taken your company to the next level, but they didn’t because they were made to just do what works.

In improv and in Agile we collaborate with our customers. In an improv game, I mean show, we’re doing that live. We do a show, and if it’s going really well, we’re getting that constant customer feedback. Our audience is our customer, our product is our show. If the audience is laughing and having a great time, then we know to keep doing that. That’s our feedback to keep going in that direction, to pursue that, keep pushing forward. If it’s going well, but all of a sudden you sort of lose them, we need to pivot. I know some of this was working, and some of it wasn’t. What can we do to get back to the things that were working? Again, we’re doing that in real time because we have constant customer feedback.

Sometimes you get rotten tomatoes, or stone cold crickets, which is the worst, but it’s feedback, and it lets us know we shouldn’t do that anymore. If we still have time in our show, we end that scene, and we move on to something different. Or we talk about it later, and when we do the next show we know that that didn’t work.

I want to do this phenomenal game, and what I’m going to do … Is everybody still okay with … I know there’s lots of interaction. Is that fine? Everybody good? Yes? Okay. Good. I really, really want you to have some things you can take with you, or you can make it into your own thing. Okay, so here is how this is going to work. Are any of you familiar with the game telephone? Yeah. How about pictionary? How about a mash up of the two? If you’re not I’m going to explain it.

What’s going to happen is I’m going to take three volunteers. They’re going to come up, and they’re all going to go underneath one. They’re going to take a pen, and they’re going to write a title of something, a quote, a line, whatever, a song. Not the whole song, just a line of a song, that would take a long time. They’re going to write that, and then they’re going to put it back down, so nobody can see it. Then once all the ones have finished, I’ll let them all go back and pick somebody, and they’re going to be two.

Person number two, they’re going to come up. They’re going to just look at one, and they’re going to draw a picture. One is like your requirements, two is building the product, makes sense? Okay, and then so on. Then two will go find a three, and three, and I’ll help you when you’re up here, will just look at two. You are not allowed to look back more than one step.

They’re just going to look at two, and they’re going to see an illustration. They’re going to see what the product is that they’re building, and they’re going to write the words. They’re going to say, “Oh, I definitely know what this is,” and they’re going to write whatever they think the quote is. You’re pictures do not need to be pretty at all. In fact, it makes it more fun if they suck.

It will go that way. We’ll go requirements or words, products, words, drawing, words, drawing. Okay, makes sense? Can I get three lovely volunteers please? Got one right there, yup. Two, and can I get three? Will you do it? Yeah, great. All right, so come on up. Give them a round of applause for being brave. All right, so as you’re walking up think of that line, or quote, or whatever that you’re going to write, and hide it underneath one, please. Thanks, guys, yup, one, one, and one. Thank you, all right. Again, the idea is that they’re writing requirements, and then they’re setting the next person to look at that, and they’re going to illustrate.

This is something you could do with your team. Doesn’t have to be on a grand scale. All right, you guys good? All right, Doc is writing a poem. Doc is writing the entire song from Journey. I don’t know why I said Journey. Okay, so if each of you would pick somebody else. You can just pick whoever you want, and feel free. Pick whoever you want. If you want to be picked, raise your hand. If you don’t want to be picked, and you’re staring at your feet, you’ll probably be picked. Just saying, all right, Bob, you’re it. All right, so who I going to be a two? Who’s going to be a two? There’s somebody right there that’s volunteering. Yeah, go away. Just kidding.

All right, and we need one more. Did you pick somebody? All right, perfect. All right, so come on up, come on up. You can just look what’s behind curtain number one. All right, you can look, but don’t take it off. Just leave it. Great. There’s nothing there, so weird. It’s magic. Do not rip off the post-its. Bob is showing you what not to do. Yeah, Bob. High five, yes. See we celebrate failure here. It’s fantastic. All right, so peek gently underneath one. Read it, and then take a couple seconds to illustrate it underneath two. All right, I feel like we need music or something. Anybody feel like singing?

See, Bob is like, “I am not bad at this game. I just beat the other two up here. Look at me. I’m amazing.” Again, it does not have to be Van Gogh’s masterpiece. Channel your inner 4-year-old is more appropriate, all right? Best you can. I would like you to, as quickly as you can, find three more people. So run, gallop, whatever you’d like just please don’t trip down the stairs because I’ll feel responsible. Find your three. Who’s coming up next? These people are writing words. See one volunteer, two, and we got one more perfect.

All right, so come on up. You are only allowed to see what is behind two, so you may not, may not, may not look at one. Yup, so just look at two, just look at two, just look at there, and then pick up three and write the words. You can be next. What’s your name? Rick, you’re next. Go, Rick. Next time I’m going to have have music.

Okay find somebody else. Wait, where did Rick go? Rick, come back. Okay, you need to pick somebody. Good, there you go. We got Rick, and then we need one more person. Got a masterpiece here. Okay, all right. You got to find one more person. Come on up, come on up, come on up. All right, you can go here.

You’re going to look at three. You’re going to do four. Just look at three, and you’re going-

Audience: To do what?

Jessie Shternsh: You’re going to draw. Just look at three and draw it in four. Just look at three and draw four. Anybody want to preload the deck and come up here? I feel like we should. Couple people who like really want to be picked just come up. You’re picked. All right, so somebody come take the place. Lawrence, so you’ve got somebody right there. There you go. You’re just going to look at four, and you’re going to write the words on five.

All right, come on up. Yup, you can come on up. Just look at four, now, the new people. You’re good, right, Rick. All right, so you look at four and draw five. Write. Okay, you write on five. All right, and then you guys are the last three perfect. I love that you guys all volunteer. Thank you so much. These were the outliers and not the asthmatics just to be sure.

All right, and then come on up, thank you. You’re going to look at five and draw for six. Then I want you to stay up. Yup, come on up, and can you guys stay up here, and tell us what you came up with, all right? The suspense, the suspense. You guys can still like failure high five each other while you’re waiting if you want. If you thought of more mistakes you made this morning.

Here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to have them go through it. You can do the reveal, okay. What I want, what was your name? Mike, okay, so Mike is going to … Yeah, Mike. Mike is going to be Vanna White, and see, he’s typecast. He’s going to go through and do the reveal. What did we start with, and I want you to hold the mic?

Mike: Dance like no one is watching.

Jessie Shternsh: Like no one is watching, all right, and it’s a beautiful stick figure. Yup, go ahead.

Mike: It’s a beautiful stick figure dancing around music notes. Water is bliss. It’s waves with again I think musical notes or fishing hooks or something. Bowling pins adrift, and so I drew bowling pins adrift.

Jessie Shternsh: Yes, good job, Mike. Thank you. Good job. All right, you ready? What’s your name? Trisha, all right Trisha.

Trisha: Okay, we’ve got the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls. Okay, we’ve got subway walls with scribble, beautiful. Wizard exploring a cruise ship. We’ve got a tiny little boat with a little girl with like a fairy wand. Lady pirates are good sailors. We’ve got a beautiful woman with a hook and a patch on something.

Jessie Shternsh: Gretchen. Ready, last one, Gretchen.

Gretchen: There’s no time like the present, and there’s a clock, 10 o’clock. Almost lunchtime. It looks like a sun with maybe a man and a laptop on a surfboard or something. Drinks on a sunny beach. Drinking on a sunny beach.

Jessie Shternsh: Give it up for Gretchen. Thank you. Great, I hope you understand how this relates to Agile, right? If we don’t have the constant iterations, and feedback, and we don’t get to talk to our teams, it goes all sorts of wrong. You could start building something, and keep building it, and building it, and building it before you ever tested it and knew if anybody even wanted, and even if you were on the same page.

At the end of our show we do a retrospective a lot like a scrum retrospective. We talk about what worked and what didn’t, and what we’re going to do next, so like a start, stop, continue, or a liked or loathed, very much like you would do in scrum together.

How much time do I have by the way? Minus a minute. Gotcha. All right, woo, high fives. Yeah, all right, so what do you do when shift hits the fan? Well, you can scream and run with your hair on fire, or you can re-frame a problem and think about it in a different way. You can do games to teach you how to deal with constraints, and how to play within them. I am happy to write up those on a slide share for you guys if you want to learn how to do it, okay?

Most of all, you must practice what you preach. I do this with my own company. I practice what I preach, and I have people calling me everyday not because they have technical problems but because they have people problems. Because most breakdowns happen for non-technical reasons. In fact, our friend Gerry Weinberg says, “No matter what the problem is, it’s always a people problem.” I want you to think about the things that we did today, and realize that there’s so many different techniques and tricks you can learn from so many other industries. I hope that you have new tools and tricks that you can use. You can also go get my book. It’s got 50 different games that you can learn and learn for 50 different types of days you might be having. If you like the kinds of things that we did there’s more, lots more, in the book.

Remember most of all we are all improvisers. Thank you.

About the Speaker(s)

Jessie Shternshus is known for helping people and companies reach their full potential by escaping conformity and adapting to our ever-changing environment. She helps individuals, teams, and companies shift their way of thinking, create collaborative environments, and help people be their best selves through interactive and inclusive exercises. Jessie has been a key player in internal training and transformations for global companies and organizations such as The United Nations, Netflix, Tyson Foods, PGATour, Ocean Spray, Mayo Clinic, Transferwise, HP, Macy’s, Johnson & Johnson, Getty Images, Walgreens, Adecco, CapitalOne, and many more. She is the co-author of CTRL Shift – 50 Games for 50 Days Like Today and No More Meetings – Unlearn ”bored room” Practices to Change the Way We Connect.