Over a year ago, I started a series of interviews with experts and rising stars in various industries. Driven by curiosity to learn from people in related fields, my goal was to share these mentorship sessions. This would allow anyone to benefit from the tips shared.
As I look back, here are some key lessons I have learned.
Business Analysis and Project Management are not concepts that make us think of comedy – at least not often. For Kupe Kupersmith, these terms are associated, if you want to be better at your BA or PM job that is. As a keynote speaker and coach, he uses his “improv advantage” to teach better methods of collaboration. He knows all of these fields well: aside from working for over two decades as a BA and PM, he was also an improv artist for many years.
In his quest to help make people “more awesome” as he describes on his website, Kupe also co-wrote the book Business Analysis for Dummies, alongside his former colleagues at B2T training. Aside from his training and speaking engagements, he is also a consultant helping organizations in collaboration and strategy.
In this interview, Kupe talks in depth about his “improv advantage” and shares some details about his career.
Did you start at first in the career path of Business Analysis or Project Management, or were you first an improv artist?
I didn’t know what I wanted to do going into college, so my dad’s like, “You like math, you might as well become an accountant.” I wasn’t really excited about it, but I didn’t know what else I wanted to do. So I graduated, thought I should use my accounting degree, became an accountant for an organization and failed the CPA exam miserably. I decided, “This is not for me, it’s not what I want do,” but I still didn’t know what I wanted to focus on. I had this creative itch: I actually tried stand-up, didn’t do that well in it, but then auditioned for an improv troop. They brought me on, trained me, and then I performed in Atlanta for about 10 years. Within those 10 years, that’s when I transitioned.
I was a subject matter expert for financial applications at Turner Broadcasting and I was working with project teams. At the time, we were going from Excel docs and Access databases to an ERP system. I was on the business side helping the IT project team. I really enjoyed working on projects so as there were openings, I kind of slid over into a BA position as being a subject matter expert in Financial Applications. So then I did business analysis, project management and kind of stayed in that space.
How did you realize that you could combine your improv skills with the project management and consulting skills?
In 2006, I decided to join a training company, B2T Training, that focused solely on Business Analysis training. Our goal was to try to help people get better in this role. I thought, “Why did people wanted me on their teams? Why did I enjoy being part of a team and help out?” Then I thought, “Wow, there’s all these improv skills that I’ve learned on stage that made me a better collaborator, that have made me a better team player. They’ve allowed me to be more empathetic.” I started to figure out, “I don’t perform on stage anymore, but how can I bring these skills to the people that we’re trying to train?”
What is a key skill that you have taken from improv that people could apply?
There’s a concept in improv that there’s no denying. Since there are no scripts, in improv you get ideas from the audience and you start acting out a scene. The actors on stage don’t have scripts to go back and forth with, so you can’t deny when somebody says something. If I’m like, “Yadira, let’s go play baseball” and you responded with, “No, I don’t want to,” that would kind of kill the whole scene, it would be boring, right? So if I say, “Let’s go for a run,” and you’re like, “Yeah, give me a second. I got to put on my shoes and yeah, let’s go,” you keep the scene moving forward.
How does that translate? One of the games we play to work on this is called “yes and.” The concept is that when somebody is having a conversation with you, you never deny. This happens all the time in the stuff that we’re doing. When we’re brainstorming with people on solutions, people typically will get frustrated, or somebody will have some idea and they’re like, “That’s a crazy idea, that’s stupid, let’s not work on it.” So try to have this “yes and” mentality in the office.
When I do this at keynote presentations and workshops, I have people play this game: I give them a topic, people pair up, then one person will start with a sentence and then the next person will be like, “Yes, and… ” and add to the conversation. I get them in the mode of going back and forth saying, “Yes, and… ” and adding on to what the previous person is saying. In those examples, you can get crazy: for example, you’re going to build a vacation home on the Moon, so have a conversation about that. People start building pools on the moon and they’re coming up with all these crazy things.
In real life, we have real constraints: we have budget constraints, we have time constraints, so we can’t do everything. But if somebody has an idea, you can’t just deny that idea. To them, it’s real. To the person, their idea is not crazy. They wouldn’t have said it unless they thought it had some merit, right? So it’s really putting it back on you that you don’t understand yet enough about that idea.
Listening is the other (skill). In improv we don’t have scripts so if I’m not listening completely to the other actors and what they’re doing and saying, then I might respond with something that has nothing to do with what they said. That’s the same thing with our conversations. If you’re interviewing me and your mind is elsewhere, you’re just hearing me talk and then you just follow up with another question, I’m going to be like, “Uh, did she even listened to what I was saying?”
As a Business Analyst and Project Manager, we’re facilitating constantly. If we’re not focusing on what’s happening in the room, really listening, paying attention, and adapting our style to how we communicate with others, then we’re not going to be as effective.
If somebody has an idea, you can’t just deny that idea. To them, it’s real. To the person, their idea is not crazy. They wouldn’t have said it unless they thought it had some merit.
What is another key skill that would be good for either a Project Manager or a Business Analyst?
Curiosity is probably number one, especially in the BA profession where we’re trying to uncover what the real need is and how can we solve it. If you really don’t understand, don’t just take a note and say, “The customer wants a blue button over here.” Tell me what is that blue button going to help us with. How does that get us to our end game?
Being empathetic is the next one. I talk about empathy by comparing it to sympathy. Sympathy is kind of understanding or feeling for someone. It’s like, “Oh yeah, I see your job is really tough. I understand that. We’re going to try to help you.” I think we become sympathetic when we have one-on-one interviews or group interviews where we’re just talking to people. But empathy is about feeling with the person. You actually know what it is they’re going through.
I think especially in the BA profession, we have to be doing the work of our stakeholders or our customers to really understand what they’re going through to come up with good solutions. Being with them, observing, doing the work with them, to really understand what’s happening.
I joke a lot of times that I think people are liars. If you’re just interviewing someone, they’re going to lie to you. If I ask somebody, “What are the steps to do your laundry?,” someone will say, “You get the dirty clothes, put them in the washing machine, put soap in, turn the washing machine on and we’re done.” So I would ask, “Well, where do you get the clothes? Do they automatically just appear in a pile somewhere or do you have to go room to room to get them? How many trips are you taking to get the clothes from all these rooms? Do you sort the laundry that you put in? Does everything goes in? I didn’t hear you say you actually closed the lid? Do you just throw the clothes and put soap in and turn it on. So the lid is open and water is splashing all over?” You don’t know if those gaps are missing.
We have to be doing the work of our stakeholders or our customers to really understand what they’re going through to come up with good solutions.
Earlier in my career, people would say, “wow, you really get us.” I think that’s what as project professionals, we’re trying to go for with our customers: being empathetic because you’re in there with them, you’re doing the work.
The ability to build relationships (is another skill). Everybody talks about what tools and techniques to use. “Do I draw a context diagram? Do I write a user story? Teach me how to write user stories. I need help using JIRA.” To me, that’s table stakes. I could teach you that tomorrow. (Focus on) how are you getting the information. Are you getting the information from the right people?
If we have a good relationship, communication is going to be easy. It doesn’t matter what tool is used: we can do requirements over chat if we had to, because we have such a good relationship and we know each other. If you have a good relationship, the communication, the conversations are going be deeper, people are going to open up more. I think both Project Managers and BAs need to focus on building real relationships with the people they work with.
In term of terms of books, resources or podcasts, what are your recommendations? There’s a number of books by Patrick Lencioni. I recommend all of his stuff. He really has good things to say around team work. Daniel Pink has a book called To Sell Is Human that I recommend. There’s another book called Drive that I recommend as well. More specific to some of the stuff that we do, there’s a book I recently read called Outcomes over Outputs by Joshua Seiden. I am reading now An Elegant Puzzle, Systems of Engineering Management by Will Larson, because I’m working on this agile transformation or how the organization is delivering work. He’s got some good ideas.
My take on podcasts and books is that as professionals, if we’re trying to improve stuff, read as much as you can and pull out different concepts that make sense, that feel good to you, that feel good for your organization. Don’t look for something that’s the silver bullet and the best practice. I think that there’s a best practice in a particular context. Your context is going to be different than what this person’s context was when they wrote it.
Since you are an improv artist, who are your favorite improv artists or comedians? I think overall my favorite is Robin Williams. He was a stand-up comedian, an improviser, and he was just unbelievable. Growing up what got me interested in comedy was probably Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, and Jerry Seinfeld. Ellen Degeneres too. I think why someone like Ellen and Jerry Seinfeld are so funny is because they can take everyday moments that you and I do every single day, twist them around and somehow make them hilarious.
At an early age for me what got me into comedy was probably The Carol Burnett Show. It was sketch comedy but they improvised a lot too. They would be cracking themselves up on stage, so they’re trying to hold back their laughter. It was just so good.
Do you have questions, feedback or suggestions of people to interview? Contact me!
Being Agile could mean a variety of things to different people. It is a buzz term which seems to be tossed around by industries to demonstrate innovation. Maurice “Mo” Hagar wants to make sure everyone knows the true meaning of Agile and the principles it is derived from. He does this in various ways. Currently, he is a Principal Consultant of Solution-Focused Agile, where he has done coaching and consulting for multiple organizations. Additionally, he host a podcast Agile on the Edge and is currently writing a book on the topic.
In this interview, Mo talks about what drove him to this focus on Agile in his career, addresses some of its misconceptions and his own model, the K2 Transformation model.
You focus on Agile coaching and implementation. Why did you decide to focus on Agile?
My journey began as a software developer for the Boeing Company. I’d been there a couple of months when one sleepy afternoon, suddenly, the CEO—of a 140,000-person, Fortune 50 company—appeared in my little hole-in-the-wall cubicle: “Welcome to Boeing!” he said with a handshake and a smile. I was stunned.
“I love to meet the new people because you’re the future of Boeing,” he continued. “You see things we don’t see. You bring new ideas. So tell me, how are we doing? What can we do better around here?” I was speechless. (He said) “Get back to me on that. Seriously, it’s important. Drop me an email anytime. And I wish you a long and successful career at Boeing.”
Of course, the CEO could not visit every new hire. But I later learned that, wherever he went, this transformational leader asked to be pointed in the direction of new employees. It was his favorite part of the job. And it changed my life forever.
Never again did I experience a sleepy afternoon. Because I was busy looking for ideas to include in that email—that I never sent. I spent half my time developing software and the rest of my time working on the business.
The next few years included just about every job you can think of in IT, including PMO Director and CIO. Since then I have served more than 60 organizations, currently IBM, as an Agile transformation coach. My work, and whatever success I’ve enjoyed, is directly attributable to that ongoing passion for continuous learning and improvement.
Agile is a different way of thinking before it is a different way of working. But changing the way we think is a much harder sell.
Maurice “Mo” Hagar
How do you define Agile?
I define Agile simply as delivering business value by collaborating with the customer and responding to change. This is the Agile Manifesto.
What are some common misconceptions about Agile?
The most common misconception about Agile is that [fill in the blank] is Agile: Scrum is Agile, Kanban is Agile, etc. And, by implication, [fill in the blank] is not Agile: Business Analysis is not Agile, Project Management is not Agile, etc. This has been manufactured, packaged, and sold by the “Agile Industrial Complex” (AIC)—as a member of the AIC I recognize the irony here. Agile is a different way of thinking before it is a different way of working. But changing the way we think is a much harder sell. Yet, when we focus on methodology vs. mindset, all we’re doing is swapping old “processes and tools” for new “processes and tools” vs. changing “individuals and interactions,” etc.
Another growing misconception, on the opposite end of the same spectrum, is that Agile is meaningless and, therefore, means anything and everything. In too many organizations it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a trojan horse for “command and control” management: “I know it takes us six months to deliver a new product feature but we’re Agile now so it’s due by Friday!”
How would you describe the K2 Transformation model you developed?
In the beginning, Agile was easy: “Can you stand up a Scrum team for us?” Today we’re leading enterprise transformations, and many of my clients are working on iteration two or three. “Here we go again,” I hear often.
“Is anybody a mountain climber?” I respond. “Tell us about K2, the Savage Mountain, the most dangerous climb in the world. Those who survive it will tell you two things: 1) There is nothing more challenging—we’ll work hard; and 2) There is nothing more rewarding—we’ll even have some fun along the way.”
Now that I have their attention, I begin to unpack the model. The two Ks are Kanban and Kaizen: we want to make everything visible and continuously improve it. Then we scale the mountain by exploring various aspects of the organizational ecosystem. And I begin with processes and tools. Because it’s a good way to learn the landscape. The low-hanging fruit here provides quick wins that execs are looking for. And it gives me time to build relationships and trust with the organization. Before we move on to “individuals and interactions,” etc.
So K2 is an agnostic, fit-for-purpose approach to Lean-Agile, built on a mountain-climbing metaphor, that I’ve developed and honed in over 60 organizations. And it scales both top down and bottom up, beginning with individuals, in a fractal way. Finally, because Agile is a mindset change vs. a methodology change, there is plenty of organizational psychology built in, particularly Dialogic Organizational Development, Solution Focused Therapy, Appreciate Inquiry, and Positive Psychology.
Can you describe a specific project or customer which was particularly challenging? How were you able to help in that case?
Agile practices make work visible and manageable. But how do you visualize and manage the all-pervasive attitudes, behaviors, and habits that make up your organizational mindset? How do you operationalize corporate values like “initiative” or team-level values such as “empathy?” How do you visualize and manage Agile values and principles such as “customer collaboration” or Scrum values like “respect?”
I said earlier that we want to make everything visible and continuously improve it. That includes values statements, social contracts, and other intangibles intended to shape and direct organizational culture. But they’re often meaningless because they’re not actionable. Solution Focused Agile incorporates simple psychotherapeutic practices to visualize and manage the invisible.
After a successful pilot, one of my Fortune 100 clients is now scaling these practices across the enterprise—this will be the focus of an upcoming executive brief in the Cutter Journal. Another client has developed a unique approach to Net Promoter Score follow-up conversations with their customers—see my chapter on this in the recent book Sustainable Solutions for Leaders.
I’m always looking to challenge and push beyond the boundaries of who and what I already know, connecting the dots between unrelated disciplines, and experimenting with new and different ways of working.
You’ve recently launched a podcast Agile on the Edge. What is your goal with the podcast? What are other projects ahead?
Frans Johansson’s 2006 book, The Medici Effect, was a transformative influence on my thinking and work. The Medici Effect, named after a 14th century Italian family that sparked The European Renaissance, refers to the breakthrough thinking and disruptive innovation that often bursts out of the big bang collision at the intersection of diverse disciplines, cultures, and industries. So I’m always looking to challenge and push beyond the boundaries of who and what I already know, connecting the dots between unrelated disciplines, and experimenting with new and different ways of working.
That was my intention for Agile on the Edge: an Agile conversation with psychologists, philosophers, scientists, etc., pushing the boundaries of Agile across the enterprise, into the social sciences, and into the future. I did manage to publish one, very good interview with Alistair Cockburn on the future in what he calls the “post-Agile” age. I have another good interview with Esther Derby about her new book on change that I need to get uploaded. And I’ve got a dozen or so other thought leaders, inside and outside the Agile community, who have agreed to interviews, if only I can find the time.
A big project down the road for me is a book or two. I’ve begun writing a couple times but stay so busy that I just can’t find the time right now—a good problem to have, I suppose.
Which resources (podcasts, books, etc.) would you recommend which have helped you in your career?