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Improve daily standups with lessons learned from improv

The connection between improv games and the daily standup may seem like a stretch at first, but as presenters Arlen Bankston and Jessie Shternshus demonstrated at their Scrum Gathering Atlanta session, “Standout Standups with Preparation, Practice and Applied Improv,” the same improvisational games used by improv actors can facilitate communication between project team members in a non-threatening way.

After briefly summarizing the Daily Scrum process, they led session participants in creating a list of impediments through a game where each group member begins by saying, “And to make matters worse…” Within a few moments, one problem had grown into a string of several problems. Participants came up with impediments including technical difficulties, lack of team cohesion, issues with tools, lack of preparation and team communication issues such as rambling team members and people distracted due to multi-tasking.

Bankston and Shternshus then led a number of activities, some that participants paired up for and others that worked well for several group members. One partner activity required that while one person is speaking, the partner had to listen to the very end of the sentence, so they could begin their response with the final letter of their partner’s sentence. This challenged partners to listen without interrupting, or assuming what the other would say.

It also stopped the natural process of preparing what to say next and shifted the focus onto the speaker. “Every person comes to a conversation with an agenda,” Jessie Shternshus pointed out.

Another game was “Color/Advance,” which helps alleviate rambling. One partner told a story, and the other could encourage more detailed information by saying, “Color,” or could prompt the speaker to move on by saying, “Advance.” This game provided feedback in a harmless and fun way. Participants suggested that this could be useful in a standup or in a retrospective.

Presenters elicited further feedback from participants about what helps improve communication during standups, and session attendees discussed ideas such as using a progress board with sticky notes for at-a-glance updates and passing around a physical object to indicate whose turn it is to speak.

Improvisational games promote active participation, build team engagement and generate positivity and laughter, according to the presenters. “We’re trying to make active listening possible,” summarized Arlen Bankston.

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