Theater and Team Building

This developed by chance. I decided to join a small drama group in a village close to Bamberg. When people ask me, I tell them it’s because I don’t have to talk about startups, digitization, agile, and other horrible buzzword topics. I can slip into a different role and have the chance to relax and make people laugh. What I didn’t expect, however, was, that it might help me on a different level, too.

“I’m playing theater” — Ralph Cibis, 2018

The first and most apparent point is that it helped me practice free speech. It’s been a while since I have been on stage. Times when I played in a band have passed a long time ago. It was probably 2012 back then. It’s not that I didn’t talk to a crowd or a group of people from time to time. It’s day to day life as a Scrum Master and it has been day to day life as a founder and startup CEO. But it bugged me to recognize — sometimes while I was talking — that I didn’t speak fluently. There were a lot of “ähms” and “öhs” and I usually never thought about my talk beforehand. Only on stage or afterwards I would recognize (or people would tell me) what my words sounded like. Don’t get me wrong, though. I was usually able to get my message across. But since playing in this drama group, I developed a different view on getting something across. Since then, I had to give one talk (and there’s one coming up in December). I found myself to be prepared way much better. I created notes below my slides. In the beginning it felt like writing down everything I would say. But as I went deeper into the topic and changed slides here and there, I recognized I might not need too much detail. I recalled the kids back at university, reading their presentation per-word from a print-out (don’t leave me out on this one…). I didn’t want this. I changed to a mixture of bullet points and punchlines. It worked. I didn’t recognize myself ähh-ing around and it suddenly felt natural talking in front of people. I guess it came from playing theater. Nothing else happened in between to have this influenced.

“I’m so agile, I’m giving a speech” — Ralph Cibis, 2018

On another note, the drama group helped me to study team dynamics. Especially in the beginning, when I was the new guy, spectator of the team kind-of, I could form a good picture on how this group has developed and what their secret group language was. As we rehearsed our play and started our performances, I became part of the group. Therefore I wasn’t able to be as neutral as in the beginning. But until then, I have learnt that a group builds upon trust. The short silent moment when you forgot your next sentence will prove if your group (or team) works as expected. But it will also uncover conflict. The first option will have your group member form their own sentence in a way no one in the audience would recognize that there was something missing. The second option will have you look at your prompter and wait for her to silently help you out. The audience will most likely recognize something happened. Therefore, it’s important to build trust within your group.

This base of trust also reflects into agile teams. Being newly mixed together at the beginning of a project, it will take time for team members to bond and to create trust between each other. A good start is to use retrospectives not only for reflection but for team building. As you might recognize in your Scrum Master career (or whatever you call your agile coach position), a team won’t develop trust by just talking about how good or bad their process is working. Don’t get me wrong — it’s super important to reflect upon sprints and how your Scrum, Kanban, custom stuff works. But the best process won’t help your team to become efficient and effective without the actual team work. And the base, to recall, is trust. Make your team uncomfortable by letting them compliment each other. Make them uncomfortable by telling a random story from their childhood. Make them aware that a team only works when each member opens up a little bit. There will be introverts and extroverts, people in between, and characters that might not be compatible with other people anyways. But your team needs trust to identify these people and to cope with the consequences should a member leave the team or try to incinerate conflict. Once a team has built up some trust, it might be able to address issues in a productive way and reach a consent through constructive conflict.

That are the basics. Play your role while on stage, convince your audience that you’re living for it and that you are this person, respectively. But to draw the line on this one: While you’re backstage with your team (or drama group), be yourself. Be the person your team can rely on and trust. Otherwise you’ll never stop playing a role — and that is by far not agile enough.