CHI Delivery Leadership

How Mark Burns Uses Improv in Project Management, without Winging His Work

Mark Burns

What does it take to participate with an improv team? Cleverness? Wit?

According to Daugherty Senior Consultant Mark Burns, it takes two ears and an open mind.

And he would know because he’s gone through several levels of improv through the Training Center at The Second City in Chicago.

The Second City may be known as the starting place for many celebs, like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Stephen Colbert, Bill Murray, etc. But even people who want to treat it like a hobby, like Mark, can train there. You might think of it like karate colors, and Mark has the equivalent of a blue belt in improv — he’s going deeper to understand the tools and is differentiating each to gain even more knowledge.

The two primary tools he’s understanding and differentiating include listening and adapting to his surroundings. It turns out both of these are fundamental to his day job — as a project manager, presently at one of the largest pharmacy store chains in the United States.

In fact, Mark first joined The Second City because he was having trouble listening. No, he wasn’t railroading anyone, and he had all the necessary soft skills, and it wasn’t even that people were saying anything. It was the nonverbal cues during meetings: people looking at their cell phones, bored expressions on their faces.

One of the first things he learned in improv was that he needed to gauge the audience the whole time, evaluating how they were reacting. If they weren’t, he had to figure out why and/or change up his routine.

In the same manner, Mark needed to gauge his stakeholders’ reactions during meetings. If they were looking at their phones, he needed to change up how he was conducting the meeting.

But listening in improv is more than just gauging the audience: Mark also had to listen to his team.

For example, the very first show Mark did, one of his teammates had no idea what to do, so she started moving her hands. The primary technique in improv is to say, “yes, and” — that is, affirm the weird hand gestures and add something to it, taking it a little deeper. So Mark said she was polishing a clock. She affirmed the polishing-a-clock statement, and added to that. And so on and so forth.

In improv, the worst thing you can do is nothing. The second worst thing is to have no one on your team bail you out. Teamwork is crucial.

Likewise, the most important aspect to project management is the team. Every team has its pitfalls, but high performance is characterized by how well the team responds.

“It’s not whether you fail while you’re getting to a solution,” Mark said. “It’s how you react.”

Good responses lead to strong relationships, and build trust among your audience (in the case of work, your stakeholders) that you can perform under pressure.

The second most important tool in improv is adapting to your surroundings.

During an improv skit, your surroundings are made up, so you have to consider your teammates’ contributions and what else is in the room. In the case of the polishing-a-clock performance, Mark could consider what kind of room would have such a magnificent clock.

By adapting to your surroundings, you can deliver value to the audience in little pieces at a time.

This is parallel to the Agile mindset in project management. In an Agile project management scenario, you start with a general idea, then adapt by listening to the people around you, delivering value in little pieces at a time.

One of the SAFe Lean-Agile Principles is to visualize and limit Work in Progress, reduce batch sizes and manage queue lengths. Reducing batch sizes increases the chances that a product will be used, while decreasing the time to get it to market.

Consider this game with pennies: You have a group of people — a timekeeper, a person with 10 pennies, and other teammates. The timekeeper starts a timer, and the person with the pennies begins flipping pennies one at a time, marking whether they are heads or tails. To demonstrate a large batch size, the team starts by timing how long it takes for one person to flip and mark 10 pennies, then pass all 10 along to the next person.

But to demonstrate a small batch size — a person flips a penny, records it, then passes that single penny to the next person before moving on to a second penny. With the entire team working in tandem, delivery is much quicker. And value is realized before the entire project is finished: A single penny is delivered long before all 10.

Large batch sizes increase variability, which can result in severe project slippage. But small batch sizes deliver value quickly. Likewise, improv requires you to work in small batch sizes, listening and adapting to your team and the audience, and being flexible to changes on the fly.

It’s enough to put a smile on anyone’s face.

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