Agile Development is Like Method Acting

How many times have you found yourself facing the same problems of getting your team to work as a team, getting buy-in from stakeholders, improving your CI capabilities, understanding requirements…? Agile development teaches us to stop trying to figure out all the angles. Focus on the action, commit yourself, and act with purpose.

Recently, while flying home from spending time with a customer, I found myself knocking back a few cocktails (bourbon if you really must know), staring out the window and contemplating quietly from 36,000 feet. As one is apt to do after having had a few drinks, I began reminiscing on my past. You see, in a previous life I was a thespian. That would be actor for all of you folks who spell it theater instead of theatre. Anyhow, for much of my early life, I was almost completely immersed in acting. I performed in dozens of amateur and professional productions, graduated from an arts high school and attended one of the most prestigious theatre conservatory programs in the country. Somewhere along the way, as is typical for people in their 20s, my interests changed. Although my wife still insists that I’m the biggest drama queen she knows, I haven’t stepped foot on stage in many, many years. As this piece isn’t really about my penchant for melodrama, I digress. Rather, the thing that struck me most on this particular flight was just how relevant one of the fundamentals of my acting training is to my current life in coaching, training and development.

In my time, method acting was the primary technique that acting students were expected to learn. Famous method actors include Dustin Hoffman, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Sean Penn and many others. For those in the know, there are really two main types of method acting. There is the American Method and the Stanislavski Method, devised by Constantin Stanislavski, of which I was a student. The goal of method acting is rather than simply pretending, the actor physically becomes the character by experiencing a psychological and emotional response based on the character’s circumstances. What makes the two methods different is that while the American Method focuses on recreating the emotional and psychological conditions in which the characters exist, Stanislavski focused on creating the emotional and psychological conditions through purposeful physical action. I realize that though the difference here may seem subtle, the application is profoundly different. For the sake of argument, let’s say that you are asked to play the character of a recently widowed, elderly person who has lost his much beloved spouse of many, many years. It’s the holidays, and even though you are still very much in grief, you are trying to reclaim some normalcy by decorating the Christmas tree. In this scene, as you are unwrapping the tree ornaments from last year, you come across the very ornament that you and your spouse bought to celebrate your first Christmas together, all those years ago. An almost overwhelming wave of conflicting emotion washes over you as you place the ornament in your hand. You feel sadness for the loss of your dearest friend, loved one and confidante, while at the same time an intense joy over the memory of your life together. With a tear in your eye, but the glimmer of a smile on your face, you slowly yet purposefully walk over to the tree and proudly hang your ornament for all to see.

If you were a student of the American Method, you would attack this scene by carefully drawing upon your own emotional and psychological memories in the attempt to place yourself in a frame of mind, similar to that of the character. As a student of the Stanislavski method, your approach would be very different. Rather than calling upon your own memories, or any memories for that matter, you would instead focus on how someone who was in that state of mind would move and physically act. How would the character physically hold his head and move his hands as he unwraps the ornaments? How would he physically hold his shoulders with the weight of the ornament in his hands? How would he walk to the tree as he prepares to hang the treasured keepsake? Stanislavski believed that by focusing on recreating the physical actions of the scene the actor would, through his subconscious, naturally create the emotions and psychological state of the character. As any actor will tell you, this technique is incredibly difficult to master. To this day I still fondly (although I couldn’t use that same word at the time) remember one of my acting coaches screaming at me to “Stop Acting! Just Do!” as I tried to think up the emotional state of the character.

By this point, I fully expect that most of you who are still reading are wondering what in the world does this post have to do with agile development.

Stop acting, just do!

How many times have you found yourself facing the same problems of getting your team to work as a team, getting buy-in from stakeholders, improving your CI capabilities, understanding requirements, etc.? The list goes on and on. Humans are funny creatures. When presented with problems, we like to think about all the different ways that we could solve them, all the possible causes for them, and all the things that go wrong in between. We feel a need to be able to cognitively understand and comprehend the situation, analyze our options and then attack. The problem is that for most of us we spend far more time thinking than actually doing.

Stop acting, just do! That’s the idea of agile development.

If you ever see actors in rehearsal, you will know that they practice by repeating lines and sequences over and over again, making both subtle and radical changes in delivery, timing and intent. They experiment with a multitude of variations before arriving at an approach that works. This is inspection and adaptation at its finest. While it goes without saying that the problems faced in software development are far different from preparing for another staging of “That Scottish Play,” the lesson is still just as valuable. Agile development teaches us to stop trying to figure out all the angles. Focus on the action, commit yourself, and act with purpose. By doing so you will find that meaning and intent will emerge. When the results aren’t exactly what we hoped for, change and try again. The more time we spend doing, the more we will learn, and the more we will grow and improve.

Now, where can I find another one of those bourbons…

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One Response to Agile Development is Like Method Acting

  1. Thought provoking material, once you’ve prsesed Ctrl-+ enough to read it. Dunno what you’re using to proof your design, but from here, the article copy uses the smallest font on the page. Madness, I tell you!

    Good stuff, though. :-)

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