The Power of Improv and Story Telling

While we do a lot of things in our lives daily, the interesting fact is that our life is nothing but a combination of various stories. Some might be good, some might be bad. Some we realize later, some sooner and while all the stories revolve around us, we tend to keep moving on. On a reflection these stories are important to connect the dots. If you heard the famous speech by Steve Jobs, it tells how connect the dots backwards it all makes sense, and how important that it.

Story telling started in my life early in various forms, but with improv from m3.0 it was another flavor. I’ve tried the m3.0 improv cards with teams for retrospective, and then with leaders for their views, and lately with kids to take their feedback.

Let me start with the most common way I’ve done this which is in the sprint retrospective. Like any other retrospective, the main purpose is to collect what went well and what could be improved. Only that this time I lay down a pack of cards. In one variation I hide the images, so that it can be a random image which the person gets whereas sometimes I just lay down all the cards (like you see in image) and seeing the image the person tells 1 thing which he/she thinks went well or can be improved.

One Interesting aspect is where I feel that each image has a different perception amongst everyone, and so I never let them help each other. I just tell them to use their own imagination and think what it is. Because the image is not that important, as the story linked to the image. While some people have a story in mind and just link the image to the story, others create the story with the image (which is the interesting one).

Often when you do storytelling, you remove the persona’s out of the picture, and you just narrate the whole incident as a story, which makes it valuable, non-offensive and very open like a fact. The facilitator often notes the output of the story, and then we discuss on the story if needed.

The images are cool, so you see people smiling and thinking at times. Other times, they complain that they don’t understand the image, but again I tell them to use their creative minds.

While we go along the room, we suddenly see people being more energetic and active. The improv cards have that effect on people who start realizing that they can tell a story with the good/bad without it looking like a blame or a cry which is brilliant. It’s like a superpower at times which is funny but true.

So, we go across the room and the facilitator takes public notes, hence discussing actions.

Another way I did once was the team to lead the activity, and they themselves making the notes, hence self-organizing on what was important.

Another variation I tried was “A day in the sprint” way, where I tell people to tell a story of a day in the sprint where 1 thing good or 1 thing bad or a combination happened. It could 1 good from one day and 1 bad from one day, but it should be 1 story.

I tell them at times to pick multiple cards too, if it helps them. Again, the power lies in the story.

With the leadership team, when I use the cards, it’s mainly for their views/feedback/observation, like let’s discuss about this team, and while people like to keep silent, the improv gives them voice and suddenly we see stories.

A small number of people have problem seeing the cards and telling stories, but I give them time. I feel a kid inside a person always lives who knows how to stich a story which is so important.

Leaders often are vocal, but the story again makes it more factual, and it’s to draw points from stories in my experience.

Another variation I did recently was with bunch of kids. Here is how I went about with them:

I distributed six improv cards to each kid. All of them were wondering what the heck was this? They were thoroughly amused looking at the strange images. The idea was for them to use the images and tell things about their life looking at what has happened.

I emphasized on the fact that sometimes in life, we need to seriously reflect on what all we are doing, what is done and where are we headed. The emotions and facts that surface during self-reflection is a powerful thing. I’ve sat with people talking about this and seen them sometimes ending in tears, but always emerging with a clearer sense of where they may want to go from there. So, we started the activity with instruction to use a minimum of three out of six cards and narrate a story from their lives. In parallel we created a word cloud from what came as stories (you can see in the images).

With something as simple as this, the topics which emerged like gender, society, aspirations, dreams, parents were quite powerful, and I felt the session went way beyond what I had initially thought of. While some reflections were tough for me as a person to digest, others were good to hear. We don’t realize in life that when we keep the problem or state the problem, we are in a way seeing the problem in absolute starkness. We see it from a different perspective, and again this is necessary. The word cloud was simply illuminating compared to some of the other sessions I’ve done before.

Lastly, I’ve also done improv using Story Cubes. You can read about them here.

Again, for me all the 3 set of people (Scrum Teams/Leaders/Kids) had unique experiences with Improv, but I can always see the kid stitching the story and I feel very good when I listen to through insightful stories. I think this art of storytelling makes this practice of m3.0 very powerful.

If you want to learn more about improv cards, you can look at the management 3.0 page here on the same.

An experience with Kids with m3.0

This is about the event I had posted a few days back where I was invited as a speaker by my friend Shrinkhla Sahai. She is currently leading her own organization – Swayam Foundation, where along with her team, she is working on arts, mental health and sustainability.  Under this particular project ‘Think a Leap’, they have partnered with Deepalaya’s Vocational Training Centre in Gole Kuan, Delhi to capacitate young adults in certain competences. The project is being led by Mohammad Kaleem, with support from Saransh Sugandh.

So, on a Sunday morning I left my home hoping that I would be able to help these kids create some impact and hoping to get inspired. It was a little trouble finding the place but eventually with help, I was able to reach the place. Funny thing initially was I was wearing a suit thinking about the cold and that people take you more seriously if I am wearing a suit, It turned out that was just my apprehension- their candor and openness helped me ease out of my formal skin quite easily.

When I had interacted with Shrinkhla a few days before the event, she had told me
“With Kids it’s different”, and I felt the same being there in the room with them
. I just knew in my heart that I had to do what I have always done with my audiences. Since I had already facilitated using Personal Maps and Improv Cards from Management 3.0 many times, I was confident. I will come back to why I mention this.

The crowd consisted of people from 10th – 12th class and looked active. I believe the work done prior to me had made the kids open in a way that they felt safe even with a new facilitator. For me for any session I have taken in my life, safety is important, because when people feel safe, they start to open up and share authentically which is needed to get them motivated. As Saransh said, they spent a good amount of time making the kids feel vulnerable, tell their problems in a way where they might not entirely solve the problem, but are at least able to keep it in front of them and perceive it from a different angle.

I  started the talk with my life story, and how I was an average kid at school, whereas the person standing there Shrinkhla wore a blue coat ( indicating 3+ scholar badge) and how I finished my studies as an engineer, gradually making it to the industry, further focusing on how I changed roles, what challenges I had, and how my quest to learn new things drove my life.

Money is a big motivator for all of us but even more so for those who families have had little access to it. Naturally for these young adults it is a big motivator, but I also kept the other aspect of how intrinsic motivation is important in life and how it really makes us drive. I showed them the Dan Pink video where they show 2 case studies and basically draw the point that money often works the other way around. I wasn’t certain about sharing this video with teenagers for whom earning money in the next part of their life is absolute necessity; but it also sent a message that do what you love so that your motivations create the best out of you.

It was time for some activities. I had planned to do two activities of management 3.0, one was personal maps, the other was Improv Cards. I started distributing colored A4 sheets, crayons, colors. The kids work with personal maps was sheer fun! Not only were they creative, but willing to express themselves truly on paper. Seeing their enthusiasm, we had to extend the time meant for the activity. It made me think that ultimately we are all kids at heart. Whenever I ask people to put themselves on paper, we feel so happy and excited, much like these teenagers.

Now when you think of a personal map, all I’ve seen is people saying someone loves driving, dance, singing, but some of their personal maps gave me goosebumps. Again, the work done with kids prior to me made them feel so safe that their personal maps brought about some very private things like their social life, their relationship with their parents, their agony and anger. Their personal maps were not just what they liked, but their feelings, their dreams, their aspirations, their goals, the ugly things in life, the good things in life. Some of them writing the maps were looking so serious, for a second, I really thought this was something so different.

Following this, I made them then sit in pairs as the original activity and talk to each other. Seeing some of the kids map, it made me feel we as adults are so scared being vulnerable even with our closest friends. It was amazing to see them so open with each other. It was tough, but they did it. I made them go through two-three rounds and I saw some good conversations happen. As always when I do this activity, I tell people to dig in more than what is their on the paper, and again some very interesting things came out in the end discussion.

While seeing these maps and reading over the content post the event, I felt that these kids had a big heart to get what they feel on a paper and then share. It takes a lot to do this. Hats off to them.

The second activity was the Improv, distributed six improv cards to each kid. All of them were wondering what the heck was this? They were thoroughly amused looking at the strange images. The idea was for them to use the images and tell things about their life looking at what has happened.

I emphasized on the fact that sometimes in life, we need to seriously reflect on what all we are doing, what is done and where are we headed. The emotions and facts that surface during self-reflection is a powerful thing. I’ve sat with people talking about this and seen them sometimes ending in tears, but always emerging with a clearer sense of where they may want to go from there. So, we started the activity with instruction to use a minimum of three out of six cards and narrate a story from their lives. In parallel we created a word cloud from what came as stories (you can see in the images).

With something as simple as this, the topics which emerged like gender, society, aspirations, dreams, parents were quite powerful, and I felt the session went way beyond what I had initially thought of. While some reflections were tough for me as a person to digest, others were good to hear. We don’t realize in life that when we keep the problem or state the problem, we are in a way seeing the problem in absolute starkness. We see it from a different perspective, and again this is necessary. The word cloud was simply illuminating compared to some of the other sessions I’ve done before.

We ended up the session with kids coming up to me and discussing some career related queries, and how to progress in life. I felt the crowd was awesome. They were expressive, they had the energy, and above all they were very “vocal”. I give a big shout to Shrinkhla, Saransh and Kaleem for making these kids so confident in their vulnerability. They are doing an amazing job; my heart goes out to them in a big way.

When I left the session, I felt that I experienced something which I thought was not possible. I go in sessions and I’m usually like bring it on, I’ve seen everything, and yet some sessions give me goosebumps. This was right on the top. I felt awesome that I motivated the kids and I felt very blessed to be given the opportunity to do so.

Life will keep giving us things, you work hard you land up at places you dream. I’m not an Elon Musk, but I tell everyone this: “Happiness is the identity of a person, so be happy and let that happiness spread around”. At the end of the day, it’s those moments of happiness with your friends, family and people around you that matters. Live each day to be happier, and while I might not be the best at this, I aspire for this too.

And while we learn, while we grow in life, we should always remember to give it back to the society we live in. And when I see people like Shrinkhla, Saransh and Kaleem, I feel they are doing this so awesome work, big KUDOS to them for the same!!

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How it all begins

Inspiring Agility .. intent.. purpose and the way ahead

Let’s always ensure to make people around us happy.

— Sumit.

As we live an era where the need of agility is every growing, I felt on the recommendation of people to have a blog where I can share my views, share the agility changes around me and what I feel about them. The intent and purpose of this website is only to share, and hope it help few. The knowledge I’ve gained over the time is from help of many teachers and I respect them a lot for what I’m today.

We all live in times when the meaning of Agility is not confined to just Development teams, but go beyond to Org, HR, Finance, Sales and where not. I felt the Agility is like Oxygen as I did my last workshop with some local kids.

All this said, let me say that in my life if I consider my greatest discovery has been that in the end it’s about Happiness. How we can be happy is important right from an individual to a team to an organization to a country to the world. The people and their interactions are very critical and no process in the world is above that. So, let’s always ensure to make people around us happy.