Agile and Improv for Better Virtual Teamwork

​Without even realizing it, we’re all doing a little improvising now (and being a lot more agile). Flying by ...

​Without even realizing it, we’re all doing a little improvising now (and being a lot more agile). Flying by the seat of our pants? Check. Quickly jumping in to save a co-worker during an awkward moment on a conference call? Check. Bringing in kids and dogs as special guests during live performances — er, Zoom meetings? Check.

All jokes aside, we’re taking a cue from improv and Agile environments by quickly adapting and making the most of an uncertain situation. And in a virtual workplace where video calls are the new meetings, the queue is filled with vastly different projects and priorities than in the past, and change is happening at lightning speed, it’s helpful to take a step back to explore new ways of conducting our day-to-day. Sometimes, the inspiration we need to fuel us and bring us closer together can come from unexpected places — like Agile and improv. The principles of both Agile and improv can break down silos, help us roll with the punches amid epic uncertainty, promote better teamwork, and infuse smarter structure into our workdays. Especially when we aren’t physically together.

Agile teams are by nature a high-performing group. Clear communication, continuous collaboration and feedback, adaptability, and an abundance of learning and growth opportunities are among the many benefits of Agile methodologies — all of which are more vital than ever. Agile leadership can provide clear direction in times of uncertainty and help teams focus on the highest-priority items and projects, ultimately easing many of the growing pains that come along with a newly remote work situation. While Agile may not be the right solution for every team, every team can take bits and pieces of Agile and apply it to their unique situations. “The Agile mindset helps us formulate initiatives in a flexible, iterative way, thanks to continuous feedback and reflection,” says Nahia Orduña, senior manager in analytics and digital integration at Vodafone.

Improv comedy is another methodology that’s closely aligned with successful team dynamics in the workplace. While improv may seem spontaneous and unstructured, it’s in fact built upon a base of very important rules that are important to teamwork, collaboration, and ultimately, successful results. Improv can also provide much-needed stress relief and help foster a deeper sense of trust among co-workers who may not be physically working side by side.

Below are several ideas from both Agile and improv methodologies to consider integrating into your daily routines to improve your team’s dynamics and elevate their work and morale amid an unpredictable time.

Active Listening in a Virtual Environment.

In an Agile environment like Scrum — especially a virtual one — it is vital that Scrum Masters build mutual trust with the other members of the team. Although a lot of autonomy exists within this type of team, team members rely on each other to accomplish their goals. Trust can’t happen without effective communication and collaboration, and vice versa, and a huge chunk of building trust comes from actively listening to one another. Help foster a culture of trust in this new virtual workspace by being open to receiving ideas and feedback and addressing team members’ issues in a timely manner. In the absence of in-person meetings, you may find it beneficial to collect anonymous feedback via a virtual board or other tool.

In a group setting, help team members to feel safe expressing their ideas in a judgment-free zone. Consider making a meeting rule that someone must be able to finish their thought before someone else speaks or un-mutes themselves on a call, and lead by example. Share clear rules for virtual meeting etiquette, such as being punctual; turning on the camera; being focused; and actively participating in the discussion. Also consider using polls and quizzes to engage others when you’re presenting and ask participants questions throughout a call. When team members see that you’re serious about listening to their ideas, they’ll feel more comfortable discussing roadblocks on projects, offering suggestions to improve a key area of the team’s process, or contributing fresh ideas that will benefit the business.

Increased Collaboration and Connectivity.

Make use of improv-style icebreakers to relieve stress, raise morale and help teams continue to feel connected. Start off a weekly meeting with a casual comparison of virtual background choices or lunches du jour, and end the week with a “show off your pets” or themed happy hour call. Make time to schedule virtual coffee or tea check-ins and check in on how people are feeling on both a work-related and personal basis. Watch a TED Talk together and discuss afterward, or virtually tour a museum as a group, to keep creativity flowing and help team members leave the workday behind and bond over interesting topics. Take advantage of collaborative tools like Kanban boards, instant messenger, and Zoom to make collaboration easier for your virtual team.

Empowering Team Members to Make Decisions.

In a healthy Agile environment, team members feel empowered to make decisions and find solutions to challenges that arise. Give your team specific opportunities to tackle challenges and self-manage to the extent that works for them and the other people with whom they work. In a time when so much is out of individuals’ control, it is important to create opportunities for team members to see their feedback in action in the projects they take on, the products they help develop and the choices the company makes. Pave the way for them to have direct involvement in improving a product or process and effecting change.

Consider giving Agile team members an extra title and responsibilities appropriate for the times, depending on your unique needs, to help the team focus and encourage engagement (and a bit of fun). For example, BCG suggests designating a “rabbit hole master” who ensures discussions stay on track, and a “zen master,” who makes sure the team maintains a healthy level of energy.

“Yes, and” is Everything.

As comedian Tina Fey details in her book Bossypants, the first rule of improvisation is to always agree, and always say yes. The Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.” This takes the idea of agreement a step further. In the improv world, “Yes, and” works by the principle that you go along with whatever is said or done by a fellow teammate. Rather than disagreeing with, belittling, or ignoring an idea, you accept it and expand on it, seeing where the idea takes you as a team. More times than not, it will lead somewhere exciting and interesting. This method transfers naturally to workplace situations, which is probably why so many companies now use it to foster better communication among employees.

The workplace version of “Yes, and” works this way: When a colleague says something, you agree by saying “Yes, and…”, and then building upon what they said by adding value of your own. Again, no disagreeing with, belittling or ignoring an idea. This method reminds us to hear one another out and see the possibilities in what a colleague is saying or creating, rather than automatically pointing out all the flaws. This is particularly important in a virtual workplace, where it’s sometimes difficult to read someone else’s body language and physical cues can easily be misinterpreted.

This method can help team members move the conversation forward and improve collaboration, particularly when they’re working through a tough conversation, challenging project or epic brainstorm. Starting with a “yes” helps team members learn to rely on each other and trust one another with their ideas, knowing they won’t immediately get shot down. This culture of trust and openness makes way for a culture of creativity and innovation within, and beyond, the virtual office walls.

Conduct Virtual Daily Check-Ins.

It’s important to give team members structure and stability through a daily virtual meeting cadence. Stand-up meetings are a standard ritual in the Agile culture, and they mean just that: Team members stand up the entire time during a short, scheduled daily meeting and take turns talking about work that’s recently been completed and what’s being worked on that day. These meetings may look a bit different behind a screen, though the goal is the same. These daily check-ins provide a source of communication and routine the team can rely on, and help ensure they are always working on the most valuable things, even when remote.

During daily stand-up meetings, team members can ask or address any existing questions, get up to speed on what others are working on, and share where they may be running into road blocks or needing advice. They also enable managers to help team members be more productive and efficient by rigidly prioritizing projects and removing roadblocks in the team’s path.

Though communicating only what’s essential is key element of stand-up meetings, the definition of “essential” has shifted. Consider humanizing this ritual for modern times by asking everyone in turn, “How can the team best support you this week?” at the start of the call. We are in a unique moment in time, and the values of empathy and transparency can’t be understated. As a leader, it’s important to talk openly about situations, even if the answer to a question is “I don’t know right now, but I’ll update you as soon as I do.”

View Mistakes as Opportunities.

As Fey also states in Bossypants, “there are no mistakes — only opportunities.” Mistakes can lead to opportunities to learn, grow and improve. As a leader, you can exemplify Agile values and bring out the best in your team by giving them the opportunity to “fail fast.” Failure is bound to happen, and recognizing, encouraging and celebrating it is a key part of your team’s success. It’s important that you adapt to unexpected changes or failures with grace, and that you help your team find opportunity in the things that don’t go according to plan. Going off course may actually lead to something better or more meaningful, and if it doesn’t, it’s still a great learning opportunity.

Work to create an environment where failure is not only an accepted, but encouraged, way of learning. Ask your team to share “failures of the week,” and positively recognize team members who identify approaches that aren’t working. Make your team feel safe trying new things, regardless of what the outcomes might be.

Have a “Roundtable Retrospective” After a Project Wraps Up.

How often does your team finish a project, only to already be moving on to the next one? While analyzing results is important, taking a closer look at the process you took to get there is valuable, too. As Seth Godin says, “You can game the process for a little while, that approach will always catch up with you.” Get feedback and perspectives from each member of the team to find out where they struggled, what went well, roadblocks that hindered progress and lessons learned. Reflecting and adapting for the next project will help the team avoid repeating the same mistakes.

Change can be hard when it’s happening, but in the long run, it will make your team’s day-to-day much easier and more manageable, both in times of stability and times of unpredictability. Take time with your teams to review the processes you have in place and work to identify any gaps or pitfalls that might have formed during the cross-over to working from home. By actively listening to the thoughts of team members without judgement, openly discussing wins and losses and pinpointing areas of adjustment, your team can enhance their productivity and still have the capacity to find some humor in the daily grind.