The Improv Analyst: Kupe Kupersmith

By: Yadira Y. Caro

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 as Business Analysis, Project Manager, 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 project management and consulting?

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 anyone 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.

Kupe Kupersmith during a speaking engagament.

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.

Kupe Kupersmith

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.

Cover of the book Kupe Kupersmith co-wrote.

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.

The podcasts that I listen to have nothing specifically to do with our profession: I listen to TED Radio Hour, Freakonomics Radio and Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell. I think there’s some interesting things that apply to what we do.

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!

Sharing Knowledge about Knowledge: Stan Garfield

If you need to know anything about Knowledge Management, Stan Garfield has probably already written about it. This prolific author and speaker has over 400 posts and various books on the topic showing not just his ideas, but also those of multiple people who are dedicated to this discipline.

Stan’s education is in Computer Science, but technology is not his only focus. As a true Knowledge Manager, he built relationships and communities to ensure information and ideas of an organization are captured and shared. In this interview you will learn about all the facets of KM and about his career. His experience includes leading KM programs and communities in professional services at HP and Deloitte.

What is your definition of Knowledge Management?

Knowledge management is the art of transforming information and intellectual assets into enduring value for an organization’s clients and its people. The purpose of knowledge management is to foster the reuse of intellectual capital, enable better decision making, and create the conditions for innovation.

KM provides people, processes, and technology to help knowledge flow to the right people, at the right time, so they can act more efficiently, effectively, and creatively. Knowledge management enables Sharing, Innovating, Reusing, Collaborating, and Learning.

What are some misconceptions of KM you see regularly?

  1. KM programs should try to implement every KM process and tool
  2. KM programs should start with technology and then roll out tools and drive adoption
  3. KM programs should focus on collecting documents or updating skills profiles
  4. It’s not necessary to meet in person and you can ignore the need to build trust
  5. KM teams can be moved around from one organization to another
  6. KM programs should rely on maturity models and benchmarking
  7. There are “best practices
  8. KM programs should collect and report on all possible metrics
  9. It’s good to get certified in KM
  10. You can delegate KM to others
  11. You can push content
  12. KM is dead and KM needs a new name
  13. You can make people do things and incentives don’t work
  14. Social is frivolous
  15. Creation of communities and ESN groups should not be controlled
  16. Risks can be eliminated
  17. It’s possible to be like Google and Amazon
  18. KM people should try to work themselves out of a job
  19. Bigger is better for organizations, and smaller is better for community membership
  20. Everything is a community
  21. Our IP will be stolen if we don’t lock it down tightly
  22. The DIKW pyramid is useful
  23. The 90-9-1 rule for community participation is obsolete
  24. It’s possible to compute the ROI of KM
  25. Content should be archived after 90 days

(For more see this and this)

What drew you to this field and to become a KM author?

I have always been interested in communication and in sharing information. In elementary school, I published a one-page newsletter. In high school, I operated a radio station. In college, I started out in the journalism school at Northwestern, but I got hooked on computer programming and transferred to the engineering school at Washington University.

I joined Digital Equipment Corporation in 1983, and they already had VAXnotes Conferences, which were early examples of online communities. As a professional services manager, I compiled information useful to my team members that included key contacts and pointers to reference material. The Key Contacts List became one of the most popular documents at Digital.

I edited and published a monthly newsletter called Systems Integration Notes. It was distributed via email, but I wanted to find a way to make it available on demand. Initially I used VAX VMS network transfers for this, and then Digital ALL-IN-1 shared file cabinets. When Digital launched its first intranet in 1995, I knew that this was a much better way to share information, and immediately embraced it. I became the editor of Digital’s Professional Services intranet site.

In 1996 I was asked to start Digital’s first knowledge management program. My background in journalism, computer programming, and information sharing made me a good candidate for this role, and I embraced it enthusiastically. I have been a knowledge manager ever since.

KMWorld 2017 Keynote

In 2004 I took over HP’s KM program. I attended a one-day APQC Proven Practice Replication workshop hosted by Ford. I was impressed by the work of Stan Kwiecien and his Ford KM colleagues, and invited them to present on an HP KM Community call. They did so, and then Stan asked me to present HP’s KM efforts to Ford. I didn’t think that what we were doing at HP was that impressive, but I reciprocated. I was surprised by Ford’s reaction to my talk – they were much more positive about our accomplishments than people at HP were. This inspired me to present and write about our knowledge management efforts, including my first conference presentations at APQC in 2005 and KMWorld in 2006. I submitted an article to Line56.com, and they asked me to write a weekly blog, which I did. When Line56 folded, I moved it to hp.com. When I left HP in 2008, I switched to tweeting. In 2014 I began writing weekly articles on LinkedIn.

I have also been writing articles for periodicals since 2006. One of these, Inside Knowledge, was published by The Ark Group, and they asked me to write a book in 2006, which was published in 2007 as Implementing a Successful KM Program. In 2016, Lucidea (a software company) asked me to write another book, Proven Practices for Promoting a KM Program, which came out in 2017. I have also been asked to contribute chapters to four other books, and I always agree to do so.

In Profiles in Knowledge you share stories of people who have contributed to the field and are no longer with us. What inspired you to do that?

I have written over 400 blog posts, so I have covered most of my original ideas. I wanted to shift my focus to share the great work that others have done. I noticed that for those who have passed away, or left the field of knowledge management, their writing is not always available online. By retrieving it from the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, I was able to bring back their lost content for the benefit of everyone in the field. And by celebrating the work of those who are no longer with us, I am able to remind others of those great ideas and accomplishments. When I do so, their surviving friends, family, and colleagues have expressed their appreciation to me, which is very gratifying.

How has the KM field evolved in the past 10 or 15 years?

The fundamental principles have not changed much over the past 25 years. Some of the approaches and components have evolved. In the initial phase of KM (approximately 1995-2005), the main efforts were related to collection:

  1. capture
  2. lessons learned
  3. proven practices
  4. content management
  5. classification
  6. intranet
  7. portals
  8. repositories
  9. expertise locators
  10. search engines

In the next ten years (2005-2015), Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0 developed, and the emphasis shifted to connection:

  1. communities
  2. threaded discussions
  3. tagging
  4. blogs
  5. wikis
  6. podcasts
  7. videos
  8. syndication
  9. aggregation
  10. social software

Since about 2015, new trends have emerged:

  1. There is currently a lot of buzz around the ideas of digital workplace and digital transformation.
  2. Working Out Loud is a growing movement that encourages employees to narrate their work and broadcast what they’re doing so others can interact.
  3. Community management is emerging as a formal discipline where community managers are formally trained, developed, and assigned to full-time roles.
  4. Cognitive computing and artificial intelligence are being used to automate certain KM tasks and augment knowledge-related decision making.
  5. There is increased attention on analytics and business intelligence, which help KM use data to derive insights and inform actions and decisions.
  6. More organizations are adopting enterprise social networks, especially Microsoft and Workplace by Facebook, as a better user interface for online threaded discussions.
  7. Chat tools such as Slack, which are used predominately for team interaction, are gaining in popularity as well.
  8. Gamification and digital badging are new ways of framing incentives to recognize people for performing the knowledge-sharing and collaborative behaviors.
  9. Agile methodology originated in software development but is now being applied more broadly across the enterprise.
  10. Mobile apps and the bring your own device (BYOD) trend are reactions to more and more people using smart phones and tablets for work. KM must ensure that knowledge systems are optimized for mobile.

“Knowledge management is the art of transforming information and intellectual assets into enduring value for an organization’s clients and its people.”

Can you share a major challenge you tackled in your career (with a customer, or personally) and how did you address it?

When I led the HP KM program, there were frequent changes in the top leadership of the HP Consulting & Integration business that I supported. Each time a new senior vice president was named, I had to start over to educate them about KM, the KM program, and what I wanted them to do in support of it.

One new senior VP convened an advisory council of field consultants, and they were very critical of the KM program. I found myself on a conference call with the senior VP and the council members, and it was very difficult. They complained about several things, including the user interface, which they thought was too complicated.

Despite that fact that we offered multiple ways to interact with the KM system, including a standard intranet menu, an engagement knowledge map, and an A-Z index, they wanted a simpler option. Instead of being defensive, we set about to create a simple user interface, and worked with the harshest critic among the council members to design it. When that user was satisfied, and when we had made similar improvements to respond to the other complaints, we reconvened the senior VP and the council, and reviewed all of the changes. The council members embraced what we presented, and we turned around a dire situation.

The moral of this and other incidents we experienced: listen to your constituents, try to just say yes, and continuously improve in response to constructive feedback.

What key piece of advice would you give to an individual who wants to perform KM work or launch a KM program in their organization?

Start out by building expertise in knowledge management.To perform KM work:

  1. Set three simple goals and stick with them for the long term. Communicate them regularly. Incorporate the goals and metrics into as many parts of the organization as possible.
  2. Keep the people, process, and technology components of the KM program in balance. Don’t allow one element (e.g., technology) to dominate the other two.
  3. Lead by example. Model the collaboration and knowledge sharing behaviors you want the organization to adopt in how you run the KM program.

To launch a knowledge management program:

  1. Create a Top 3 Objectives List of challenges and opportunities which your KM program will address. These objectives align business direction with program goals.
  2. Provide 9 Answers to questions about people, process, and technology. This information defines who will participate, which processes will be required, and how tools will support the people and processes.
  3. Define the KM Strategy. These are specific actions which will be taken to implement the program.
  4. Gain the sponsorship of your senior executive through The 10 Commitments. These commitments from the leader of your organization will enable the KM strategy to be implemented.
  5. Create and execute the Implementation Plan. This plan spells out the details of implementing the initiative.

You regularly share recommended resources. What 2 or 3 key resources (books, podcasts, etc.), would you recommend to anyone who wants to know more about KM?

Here are six:

  1. Blog: Knoco Stories by Nick Milton
  2. Book: Working Knowledge by Thomas Davenport and Laurence Prusak
  3. Community: SIKM Leaders Community
  4. Conference: KMWorld
  5. Periodical: K Street Directions by Chris Riemer
  6. Site: Gurteen Knowledge Website by David Gurteen

Do you have questions, feedback or suggestions of people to interview? Contact me!