Art professors and curators have honed a facilitation skill most IT folks need to practice: critiquing works-in-progress.  Too often individuals’ communication styles can block or limit a clear pathway from feedback to improvement.

speed networking

Meet-the-curator event at Artspace in New Haven Oct 2012

In the art world, there are many structured formats for conducting a critique.  The one I tend to reach for as a model for software teams is a kind of Perfection Game compatible with principles of Non Violent Communication.

The process consists of group members performing four observable actions in sequence.   Prompts for each action take the form of questions. In steps 1 & 3, the responses are open-ended.  In steps 2 & 4 the responses are binary.  This pattern of alternating open-ended and binary questions sets up the framework for a productive critique.

1. Describe – In its current state, what do you notice first about this work?  What are its salient features?


2. Analyze – Do the relationships among the various parts create an overall sense of harmony or distress?  Does every element really need to be there?


3. Interpret – What do the form and functionality here imply about the intent?  What might bring this work closer to fulfillment?

4. Judge – (go ahead, it’s safe at this point!) Is the work gelling or not (yet) in its current state?  Is the “Why?” of this thing obvious?

 Bonus game-within-a-game: The group can create a mnemonic device for remembering the sequence of actions according to the first letter of each word.  For example, DAIJ can stand for “Dem Apples Is Juicy” or “Do All Introverts Joke.”

Art students who practice giving and receiving feedback embody the knowledge that creativity relies on structured group communications.  Peers in such forums have a responsibility to help each other clarify and measure intent.  Full realization of anything complex is an iterative process, generally requiring more than one round of group critique.

MANY THANKS to predecessor Lee Devin, co-author of Artful Making: What Managers Need to Know About How Artists Work and The Soul of Design.  And to the team at Independent Software who practiced the artful critique in their demos.

Want to know more about models from the arts that apply to business? Schedule a Creative Companies consultation with Elinor Slomba.  Email artsinterstices at gmail dot com.

Artful Agilists is a group multimedia exhibition intended to demonstrate one of the intrinsic rewards for working in an Agile way: bringing more of ourselves to work.  The success of this demonstration rests on the vulnerability of respected Agile practitioners sharing who they are as creative art makers and practitioners. It is scheduled for Saturday, February 21, 2015 in the Agile Leader Hall, a virtual space in Sococo .

Fractal Cylinder, Artist Dan Gries (middle)

Fractal Cylinder, Artist Dan Gries (middle)

The venue is the online home of Bill Krebs’ Distributed Agile Study Group.  Offering workshops to help Agilists gain fluency in virtual worlds, this is a global community of practice for what Fast Company columnist Scott Anthony calls “associational thinking.” Associational thinking is defined as the ability to make surprising connections. Members are co-present in the Agile Mindset across distance, methodologies and domains.

Here is the rationale behind the exhibition:

During the Industrial Revolution, people in the workplace distinctly separated what we think of now as “art” from “technology.” Though engineers held the well-oiled machine in high esteem, it was in a realm far from the bright ornaments with which the Victorians populated other spaces. Thus efficiency was divorced from beauty. Engineering was divorced from craftsmanship.

We suffer when we reinforce this false split while trying to accomplish knowledge work. The boundaries hurt because they no longer apply.

As Agilists, we want to hone our aesthetic senses and re-integrate art and technology. This is one path to healing the wounds of an inhuman workplace. We seek to apply artfulness to our roles as makers and users of technology. We also respect and promote art’s function as an embodiment of culture.

Artist Robert McDougal, Yale

Artist Robert McDougal, Yale

This is an online gallery where you can interact with the viewers in real time. If you’d like to participate, here’s how:

MANY THANKS to Lyssa AdkinsDoc List and Paul Sutton for their early commitment to participate,

to the members of New Haven Artful Agilists for their continuing on-the-ground inspiration,

and to Esther Derby for providing valuable insight and moral support.

Intrigued but not yet ready to contribute? LEARN MORE about the platform of Sococo and check out Elinor’s mentor Lee Devin, co-Author of Artful Making and The Soul of Design.

An interview with Jesse Fewell, author of “Can You Hear Me Now?: Working with Remote Virtual and Distributed Teams”




ES: I found reference to your book at the end of Mark Kilby’s wikinotes from Agile Alliance 2014.  He led a session called “Remotely Agile?”  I’m really honored you have time to speak about this. What is the main pain point common to all teams working remotely across the agile space?


JF: Preparation.  When you assume you’re set up and can just “hop on the call,” it becomes painfully obvious when you’re not.  We’ve all been there and not followed our own advice. It happens.


ES: That’s for sure…my computer overheated once and I had to use frozen pizza as an emergency cooling pad!


JF: Hah!  And then of course preparation means much more than gear, although the gear is important.  It’s also more than simply setting an agenda and booking a meeting in Outlook.  Preparation means asking ahead of time: what information needs to flow out of this meeting?  What are the pieces to be unlocked by the exchange?  How are we going to create a collaborative environment?


ES: It can be difficult to get anyone to focus on these questions in advance.  How do you do it?


JF: I find it helps to have a framework.


There’s Innovation Games  “Ideas into Action” model that invites us to choose a format based on the conversation we’re going to have.  There might be a portion of time set aside for ideation where we use sticky notes.  Then we do some shaping of the material, this might be in a shared GoogleDoc which we type  in and look at together.  Then there might be some prioritization which could involve an online poll.  You can actually map a conversation through these different platforms.


Innovation Games has taken the effort to productize some useful things for online work, including the Budget Game. The idea here is how do you decide in a consensus in a collaborative environment?  Everyone has monopoly money to spend, and they form alliances.


And check this out if you haven’t already: “We’ve Got to START Meeting Like This” by Dana Wright.

She says whenever there’s an event or a meeting, or say for instance an Agile ceremony, you follow this model:

  • Beforehand, anticipate.
  • During, use engagement techniques.
  • Afterward, think about how to extend the dynamics, momentum, the energy.


ES: That makes a lot of sense.  How can we equalize the dynamics on teams that have some members co-located and some remote?


JF: I like to have everyone dial in.  Whether you’re thirty feet apart or thousands of miles, it’s a great equalizer so everyone can virtually collaborate.


When Verizon Wireless wanted to bring different silos together into the product requirements phase setup, not everyone could fly in but they still wanted to be involved.   We achieved a collaborative dynamic with these people through a simulcast – virtual teams were established with a facilitator in the main room.  They broke out then had a debrief at the end with representatives from each virtual team.  It worked!


ES: Is there a set of meta-skills needed to arrive at protocols for how teams will operate virtually?


JF: Interesting question, facilitation is one.  When you’re face to face, the speaker owns the room. The audience gives the facilitator a huge amount of authority to set up the collaborative energy.  If he or she says, “Stand up and talk to the person next to you,” we do it.


In a virtual environment it’s much harder to rely on one single person to facilitate.  Everyone’s distractions are a lot closer at hand, and so everyone has to bring a commitment that “we’re going to make this work.”  Remote facilitation is about connecting people to their sense of purpose and reminding them why it matters.


The book Remote by 37 signals talks about this. Working remote is how they recruit the best talent, so getting it right is a badge of honor and a source of pride. You have to reseed that original emotional investment.


ES: Okay, facilitation.  Any other meta-skills?


JF: Because the peripheral senses are missing in an online environment, we can’t read each other as well.  So introspection becomes important.  We rely on everyone to be a little bit more self aware than usual.  Checking in needs to happen more frequently, not just at the beginning of  a meeting.


I’m actually going to be speaking more about this at my keynote at the PMI conference in St. Louis in October.  There is definitely a personal skillnet that is needed for individuals to help bridge the distance on teams.


ES: Well, thank you.  Let’s speak again after you give that talk and before I go off and tell stories about remote teamwork at Agile Tour London!


There will be a follow up conversation in October 2014.



Jesse’s book is mentioned on this wiki from Agile Alliance 2014


Jesse Fewell spoke with Big Visible about Learning and Engagement at Agile Alliance 2014


You can download a free e-copy of Jesse’s book at his website here:


For more Stories of Remote Collaboration, see my article on InfoQ:

Last week, near Yale…

full invite RE

Members of New Haven Artful Agilists saw the grid-like structure on the face of the oldest working elevator in Connecticut and thought they looked like pixels.  The only next sensible thing to do was to cut up pool noodles into three-inch slices and insert them into appropriately color-coded spaces to recreate a portrait of Marilyn Monroe!


More steps in the process of installing this work can be seen here.

The results are in the exhibition re:Generate / Art Based on Code on view at The Grove now through September 20, 2014.

Other artists and works in the show include:

focuslessness, a writing/art collective that experiments with ways of generating, composing, processing, displaying, publishing, using, and experiencing language. It was founded in Buenos Aires in 2012 by Milton Laüfer, an Argentine writer, computer programmer, and digital artist currently living in Brooklyn and Michael Romano, an American writer currently living in New Haven. The group’s first experiments aimed to break out of conventional writing/reading formats and practices to explore memory and transience. Says Michael, “The reader can never go back to what she has just encountered and has no control over what she will encounter. She’ll never know what would have arrived if she had stayed. Her reading—each of her readings—is unique and irretrievable.”  Focuslessness is also participating in “Vagaries of the Commons” at Artspace.

Robert McDougal, a mathematician turned computational neuroscientist. He develops techniques for using computers to help understand the brain.

Embedded image permalink

“Every thought we think and every moment we spend appreciating art and beauty is made possible by the collective activity of nearly 100 billion neurons in our brains. In an ironic case of ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ we tend to forget about these important cells. And though we all have them, they are too small to see with the naked eye and most people have never even seen one in a microscope. This work physically manifests real, traced neurons on a human-interpretable scale, allowing us to appreciate them not just for their raw computational power, but also for the beauty inherent in their delicate branching structures. The six neurons displayed in the piece each come from different parts of the nervous system and relate in different ways to how we perceive the world around us.”

Giulia Gouge

“I work in communications daily, and have to be very clear and concise and leave very little wiggle room when it comes to interpretation.  Tone is important.  As we move into the digital age, we find the balance of communications shift from hyper ambiguous with abbreviated text and lack of punctuation to hyper emotive with…well…emojis.  Then we find ourselves lost in translation.”

Dan Gries

“A mathematician and educator by training and vocation, computer programming came to me later in life as a way of creating interactive instructional applications. Later, code become a way for me to express myself artistically. My work follows no hard and fast rules except that I aim to create objects which are visually appealing. I am particularly fascinated with the idea of creating aesthetic imperfection, by harnessing and controlling randomness. I also prefer to do only a bare minimum of post-processing in the form of image editors, so that each image is purely a visual representation of an algorithm.”

Fractal Cylinders

These three works were the result of experimentation which began with a simple question: how would you program a computer to draw a circle the way a human would – imperfect and wobbly? A method for producing such circles was worked out based on fractal subdivision. This led to the creation of “fractal cylinders,” by allowing closed curves to smoothly sweep across the canvas, as the curves morph from one of these imperfect circles to the next. The resulting objects marry jaggedness in one direction with smoothness in a perpendicular direction. The variations in the resulting images were created by tracing curves either along the length or around the “waist” of the cylinders, by changing colors and transparency and the way the light blends together, or by allowing two fractal cylinders to intersect each other. The images were coded in JavaScript, and methods were worked to push a web browser to extremes to generate these large, high resolution images.

Cellular Boids (live animation)

This animation is essentially a mashup of two classic algorithms: cellular automata and the boid algorithm. Each cell (square) in this two-dimensional array contains a color, and on every refresh of the screen each cell changes color according to the behavior of its neighbors. The rules for changing colors are somewhat technical, but have simple underlying ideas: each cell wants to be a similar color to its neighbors (cohesion), but without being exactly the same (avoidance), while also changing with a color flow similar to the average flow of its neighbors (alignment). Colors are defined by red, green, and blue components, and as colors change this corresponds to a motion through this three-dimensional color space. This is the flow direction that the cells attempt to align with their neighbors. The animation begins by giving each cell a randomized color, but once this initial state is set the animation proceeds without any influence of randomization. Although the tapestry of color evolves endlessly, unpredictably, and chaotically, it is a completely deterministic consequence of the initial state.


Alexander Gross 

The world that we live in is unimaginably complex. We are awash in a sea of information. Autonomous agents act and interact everywhere around us, with each other, and in ways that are impossible to predict or truly understand. As a society we exert considerable effort towards isolating and presenting patterns, rules, theories, “truths”; attempting to tame our fear of the unknowable sublime and replace it with “understanding.” But ultimately these understandings remain merely models of a reality we will never master.  As creative researcher, I seek intervention into the neat little models and equations we use to define our world. Technological interventions provide a way to explore potential worlds and to reconnect with the fragility of our own complex existence. Towards this end I cultivate a liminal practice situated at the border of the unknown. A place where disparate areas of research can fuse horizons in previously inconceivable ways. A place where a relaxation of assumptions can lead to new conclusions.  A practice of this type is, I believe, critically important, because loathe though we may be to admit, it is not the things we think we understand which make this life worth living, it is only mystery.


Danielle Kefford

“I am a software engineer in a corporate environment during the day but I have always had a curiosity about graphics programming over the years. I also drew a bit from time to time when I was younger, but only during the last 8-10 years have I elevated my drawing to an actual hobby. Generative art is a satisfying fusion of those two passions by allowing me to be expressive through code.”

Dan Bernier

Fractal Circles

Take a square, subdivide it, repeat; but each time, maybe we stop and draw a circle instead, and maybe it’s solid, or hollow, or maybe even missing.


These pieces originally started as a way to explore combinations and permutations of members in a set. Combinations with one or two circles could be large, but combinations with more would have to be smaller, to fit. I liked the effect of mixing multiple sizes, but I had to choose each set of combinations, and choose how to organize them, so I abandoned that idea for randomly-generated fractal layouts instead.


Brian Monahan

Structures is a simple piece that is built in processing (a program language.) The pieces were created by moving a mouse and create points that are then connecting to one another, in realtime. The prints are artifacts of the process. The structures that I created in this were meant to resemble an organic or fluid substance, that had the structural components within, in many ways supporting the overall form.

Source Code


int[] xpos = new int[100];

int[] ypos = new int[100];


void setup() {

size(1920, 900);


for (int i = 0; i < xpos.length; i++ ) {

xpos[i] = -100;

ypos[i] = +150;






void draw() {


if (mousePressed) {

for (int i = 0; i < xpos.length-1; i++ ) {


line(xpos[i], ypos[i], xpos[i+1], ypos[i+1]);

xpos[i] = xpos[i+1];

ypos[i] = ypos[i+1];


float distance = dist(xpos[xpos.length-1], ypos[ypos.length-1], xpos[i], ypos[i]);

float b = map( distance, 4, 2, 1, 1);



if (distance < 105) {

line(mouseX, mouseY, xpos[i], ypos[i]);




if (mouseX != 0 || mouseY != 0 ) {

xpos[xpos.length-1] = mouseX;

ypos[ypos.length-1] = mouseY;






Taxonomies are useful tools for visualizing culture.  Cultural categories are divided into “domains,” each of which have their own “folk terms.”  For the ethnographer or student of culture, the job is to uncover, clarify and reveal underlying taxonomic structures by mapping out the domains and folk terms of the people being studied.


In this mapping process, the ethnographer learns a lot by asking “what are the kinds of…,” “what are the steps in…” “what are the parts of…” or “what are the ways to do…” X according to what is being studied.


When complete, a taxonomy will have a set of strictly contrasting or binary categories.  This phase of the process comes down to testing many variations of this question: “how do you know that this is this, and not that?”


Here’s what a binary taxonomy looks like describing simple objects:

Taxonomy sample

I have the privilege today of facilitating a community retrospective of a four-year public arts project.  We will use this worksheet to uncover the first phase of taxonomic structures:


blank taxonomy

The purpose of this exercise is to find out how the community categorizes itself, which may not be the same as how it has been categorized in the past by funders, city agencies and other outside entities.  Cultural studies like this one rest on a foundation of respect for the insider’s viewpoint.  The results will inform future programming and fundraising efforts so as to contribute maximum value to the community on its own terms instead of just “good PR.”


A great resource for further information is The Cultural Experience: Ethnography in Complex Society by McCurdy, Spradley and Shandy.



I am preparing to give a talk by telepresence!   Lisette Sutherland has arranged for us to speak together via a BeamPro at Spark the Change, a new management conference in London.

Yesterday the Suitable Tech crew in Lyon, France invited me in for a practice session.  Here are some pictures of my jaunt through their headquarters.

They kindly set me up to practice in front of a mirror.  The theory we will test is that the BeamPro offers the ability to move around on stage, turning slightly to the right and left to connect with the audience, surpassing the human features of most “head on a screen” video presentations.


Lyon 1

You can see by the blue lines on the bottom that the device tells you which way you’re heading and enables you to scan the floor for obstacles which might be in your path.


Lyon 2

After practice I went roaming and stumbled upon the guys playing foozball.  They assured me this was just a regular day at the office, receiving guests beaming in!

We chatted about a few things, including the World Cup.  They congratulated me on the US team’s valiant efforts on the field all the way up to their defeat by Belgium in overtime.  You can see I was still a bit tender on the subject.

Lyon 3

Then I tried to go back to the docking station.  In the world of telepresence, this is only polite to ensure that it’s charged up for the next person.  Unfortunately, I got lost in the hallways of Suitabletech.  Anyone who knows me understands that navigation is not my specialty.  It was not far at all and the guys had directed me.  However, still this disorientation was fairly predictable.

Lyon 4

Luckily, a friendly face saw  me wandering around and decided to help!

Lyon 5

Ah, finally I made it back to civilization.  Roaming around an unfamiliar office is something I have done a million times, but never remotely.

Lyon 6

I like the way in which occupying physical space helps to order one’s experiences.  My roaming  had a beginning, middle and end.  Each stage required reflection and some introspection on what I wanted to accomplish, how things were going and what I was prepared to do next.

I always recommend a walk to clear the head and get centered.  Now I am ready to present my talk in London!

My favorite projects are ones in which the goal is clear but the path is uncertain. Finding the best way to proceed becomes a “we” thing – surpassing any individual’s view of reality.  Enlarging my own ideas about what’s possible is the joy of collaborating.  Leading a group through this process has at times felt sublime as outcomes emerge which none of us could have predicted.

Photo Credit: Mufid Bohorquez

Photo Credit: Mufid Bohorquez


The work I do with teams is storycraft.  This means there is a story to be told about a community, and the product is an experience to be crafted which – if successful – will propel that story forward.  Reflecting on some of the most satisfying of these projects, I am struck by a consistent pattern of iterative teambuilding as a narrative practice which supports emergent outcomes.


Iterative teambuilding can be visualized as the building up of a team in concentric circles outward from its most invested members to progressively involve various sets of participants and stakeholders.  Structured communications keep everyone aware of these relationships.


Narrative practice is a term borrowed from social work recognizing the power of stories to regulate our experience of satisfaction.  I use it to mean keeping people in the same conversation long enough to get something “Done” together.  As individuals build a mental model of their origin as a group, the factors contributing to their complex challenges (what I call the “mushy middle”) and what they hope to accomplish in the world (their finale or conclusion), they co-create value.  This value is derived from their ability to improve the quality and clarity of the stories they tell, often attracting energy in the form of new resources and commitments from an enlarged circle of stakeholders.


Here are three projects to which I’ve applied a narrative model for teambuilding in the past year:


  • curating and producing a tour of New Haven’s “innovation district,” the historic Ninth Square, for The International Festival of Arts & Ideas


  • connecting local start-ups and youth to the New Haven Museum for a state-funded humanities program called CT@Work


  • crafting a new senior management position to work closely with the Executive Director and supervise a growing staff for an after-school arts program spanning several school districts


Here are steps we went through in each instance:


Name the original team.  A team is a unit of two or more individuals who agree that a project should happen, combine resources to make it happen and possess the ability to evaluate its adaptive fit.  For example, a visionary plus a funder can be an original team.  Being clear about who sits in the center of the circle provides fuel for teambuilding because it orders relationships and gives the project a point of origin.


Name the occasion.  An occasion is a combination of a goal and a timebox.  “Getting married on June 8th” is an occasion.  So is “involving local youth and entrepreneurs in two public programs at the museum in February.”  What is unique and/or compelling about this occasion?  Will the story come true in time to create value?  These central questions are relevant and applicable to every project.  I find they create narrative suspense to get people interested in participating.


Name the tools to use for communicating.   A combination of synchronous and asynchronous communications works best, including:

  • a central place where everyone can put notes. typically a shared GoogleDoc
  • a regular meeting schedule with a set cadence for getting things done in between, say every Tuesday at 10am


Name the protocols for using these tools.  Open space technology – provides great inspiration for encouraging people to trust the emergent outcome.  It helps to say or post these principles: “Whoever shows up are the right people.  Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened.  The Law of Two Feet Lives Here. and When it’s over, it’s over.”


Everyone can check the notes document and add ideas, comments and feedback. Decisions get made in the meetings, and these decisions are not revisited but built upon to move the project forward.  Attendance at the meetings is optional, however opting out of any given meeting means opting out of the decision-making process while agreeing to respect any decisions that get made.


Invite various groups to participate.  One group inviting another amplifies the importance of the occasion.  Museum staff invites design professionals from the start-up community.  Design professionals invite youth.  Youth invite their teachers.  All of these relationships enhance the project’s storycraft because many stories get embedded into the one, central story.  People understand why they are participating and how their relationships fit in with the others.


Another example is: The Board President invites the Executive Director to explore possibilities.  This pair invites the Executive Committee to review their findings.  The Executive Committee presents these findings to the other Board members.  The Board as a whole invites the staff to help flesh out an action plan.


A team that builds iteratively becomes invested in its own success as a team.  The original team takes responsibility for orienting and integrating new members.  New members take responsibility for understanding the whole vision and building upon what has already been established within the narrative sequence.  Relationships become part of the mental model of a project according to when and how various groups are invited to participate.


A worthwhile goal plus a realistic yet challenging timebox create an occasion for people to become an awesome team together.  I enjoy watching outcomes emerge as a newly-established or re-energized team finds its way through a project’s beginning, middle and end.


Artists’ intelligence is now valued by business at the competitive edge. Two years ago I came to suspect that what I was learning about Agile software development could be mapped onto what artists and arts administrators had revealed about creative practice. In collaboration with clients, colleagues and co-workers, I’ve been using these insights to address a response to the question:  can I be Agile even if I’m not part of an Agile team?  Artists tend to function as a cross-functional team inside of one headspace.

Here are my slides from a presentation I gave on this topic at Agile India 2014

Tobias Mayer, author of The People’s Scrum, says, “I’d love to be in the audience for this one. It’s very inspiring.”

And here are some of the highlight Tweets:

Bernd Schiffer ‏@berndschiffer Scrum of One session with @artsint at#agileindia2014 Lot’s of hands-on exercises to organise and grow
Ellen Grove ‏@eegrove  be FLAWSOME! Invite reaction. Let people know your standards for technical excellence and ask for feedback. @artsint #AgileIndia2014
Kevin Austin ‏@kev_austin  ”Trust in emergent outcome” @artsint #AgileIndia2014
Rae Abileah ‏@raeabileah  Scrum of One with @artsint is interactive and introspective. ❤ this session already. Art meets Management! 



“I like your Scrum of One idea.  Your work and your thinking seem very aligned with my own.” – Tobias Mayer, author, The People’s Scrum 

“Scrum of One”

Artists tend to function in ways that are intuitively Agile.  Working closely alongside arts leaders for nearly twenty years before becoming a Scrum Master, I have devised a set of practices that solopreneurs, freelancers or anyone working without Agile support in a larger company can practice to become more productive and contribute positively to organizational culture.  I have been putting this into practice for managing deliverables with my own clients as a consultant.

your friend in artfulness, Elinor


On December 16th Arts Interstices hosted a conversation via Google Hangouts among dance and theater improv artists and Agilists from various parts of the US.  The following is a briefing on some essential themes this cross-sector dialogue uncovered regarding the serious interest business is taking today in this art form.

“Yes, And…”

People feel threatened when choices are unduly restricted.  With a narrow set of options, positions become entrenched and even the simplest conversation become difficult.   Saying “Yes, And…” (rather than “Yes, but..”) is widely acknowledged to be the first guideline of improv.  Experienced practitioners emphasize building upon the contributions others have already made, creating an expanded sense of possibility.

“Make Your Partner Look Good”

Imagine going into a meeting with a bad set of nerves anticipating critical scrutiny.  Now imagine going in alongside a colleague, shifting your focus to a total dedication to making that person shine as the most brilliant mind on earth.    Sea Tea Improv recommends practicing this kind of mutual support as a way to instill trust quickly and powerfully.

“Suspend Disbelief”

Improvisational scenes progress iteratively.   Starting with mundane circumstances and then taking the audience along on a journey by adjusting their expectations step by step is conducive to fantastic results.



One of the steps towards relaxing in a group is seeing oneself in others. That spark of recognition can be induced through the act of mirroring, used as an icebreaker in Annie Sailer’s movement exercises.

“Spatial Collaboration”

Knowledge workers have few conscious opportunities to read each other and respond nonverbally.  Even though these exchanges happen all the time at work, improvisational movement renders them intentional, slowing down the sequence of sensing, perceiving and choosing how to engage.

Just+at+Work+008Scrum Teams That Harmonize

Robie Wood led this workshop at the Paris Scrum gathering in September 2013 with his brother Jody Wood, a deeply experienced improv actor.  The description in the program reads: How can we positively charge and orient Scrum Team members toward effective participation in the conversations, activities and innovation necessary to deliver business value? Let’s get team members to Harmonize. To maintain team Harmony, we can draw on examples from the Arts where Harmony is sustained by using improvisation to adapt to changing complexity. The “Scrum Team that Harmonizes” workshop employs improvisation exercises from the Acting world that are designed to work on the specific skills needed by team members to perform effectively in each of the four types of Scrum Meetings.

Robie will host the next Hangout scheduled for later this month, and we’ll include international participants.   Further exchange will advance the dialogue and lay groundwork for intelligence-gathering and sharing of effective practices for how improv is being used today in business settings.   Practitioners can plug into this conversation by emailing or


Sea Tea Improv

Annie Sailer Dance Company


JW Actor’s Studio

This post concludes my December series on anthropology’s fundamental frameworks for understanding culture and organizations. I’ve prepared it for friends in the Agile community who have shown interest in scholarly reference points to inform their approaches to speaking and coaching.  Special thanks to Lisette Sutherland, who gave a presentation on Tribal Leadership at an Agile HR conference in Stockholm, Sweden and afterwards asked for some feedback.  – ES

Majoring in Cultural Anthropology began a trajectory of understanding how very much I do not understand.  Our own culture always constrains our understanding of other cultures.  This affects our development as an individual, our ability to communicate and the quality of our relations with people.


I used principles of Anthropology to climb out of the paper bag I was in, namely the American South.  As a white, privileged woman, my cultural lens had sculpted my viewpoint and behavior in ways I sought to change as I became aware that they caused harm and pain.  Of course, this is an ongoing process of awareness, acceptance and just plain muddling through.

With perspective gained through academic study I found it possible to correct for cognitive biases, navigate and contribute to cultural diversity, and learn to enter complex organizations and communities with respect and exit with mutual trust and new friendships.  Today as a business professional I draw upon my training in Cultural Anthropology to quickly map out underlying power structures, conduct ethnographic research and function effectively as a participant-observer.  I believe the discipline offers key insights on many of the problems that Agilists face in positioning their role as change agents inside organizations.

In a paper called Business Anthropology and the Technology Company, Daisy Rojas writes, “the use of anthropological practice within technology companies brings about understanding of something outside of engineering processes.  This may include human thought processes and methods of interaction.”  She quotes from Scott Ambler’s work Agile Modeling: Effective Practices for eXtreme Programming and the Unified Process (2002) in discussing information flow among teams about how new technologies are used or built.

I had the good fortune to meet up with Daisy in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the holiday break and chat about influential concepts in 20th century Cultural Anthropology.  (Previous two posts cover earlier periods.)

“Every technological system functions within a social system and is therefore conditioned by it.” Leslie A. White

White examined major historical events such as the Agricultural Revolution and the Fuel Revolution.  He looked at transportation, energy, medicine and communication in terms of social change and patterns of adaptation.

“Life inevitably diversifies,” Marshall D. Sahlins.

Sahlins defined diversity as the production of new cultural forms evolving out of old forms.  He saw progress as the tendency of forms to become increasingly complex.

“Anthropology will one day have a choice of becoming history, or nothing.” E. E. Evans-Pritchard

Pritchard turned a reflexive lens on his own discipline and helped Anthropology critique itself.  He accurately predicted a shift of the emphasis among anthropologists toward contemporary studies.

Claude Levi Strauss Picture Quotes 4 Claude Levi Strauss Picture Quotes 4

Levi-Strauss contributed a view of kinship based on alliances.  In much of his work he sought out a “deep grammar” of underlying structures within the human mind to explain culture in terms of contrasting binary opposites.

“A ritual is a stereotyped sequence of activities involving gestures, words, and objects…designed to influence forces on behalf of the actors’ goals and interests”  Victor Turner.

From the early to mid-1950s, Turner lived among the Ndembu, a central African tribe and studied their society and religious practices.  He contributed the concept of liminality as a state of being betwixt and between a culture’s recognized categories.

“Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.” Clifford Geertz

Geertz interpreted the symbols that give rise to meaning in a culture.  He believed that cultural symbols are a primary source of order in people’s lives.  His writing has a distinct literary flair.  My favorite is an essay called “Thick Description” about all the different ways an you can interpret a wink and the ethnographer’s role in discerning among them.

Today, more in the Agile community are coming to see, understand and promote the value of anthropologists’ contributions to their approaches to leading change in organizations.

The Self Management Institute published my reflections on Victor Turner’s concept of Communitas earlier this year   Very similar anthropological concepts have been woven into the framework for Open Agile Adoption, as described in this article:

Here are some additional resources:

High Points in Anthropology

Conformity and Conflict, Readings in Cultural Anthropology

The Cultural Experience: Ethnography in Complex Society

The Anthropology Network, an open LinkedIn Group

Anthropology and Design, an open LinkedIn Group

Lisette Sutherland is an expert on remote collaboration and community-building.  We are presently gathering case studies for a book about working remotely.  If you have a story to tell on the subject, please reach out to us: @lightling and @artsint.   The results will help others and improve the world of work.  

Daisy Rojas can be reached at the University of Virginia.  Her paper was published in the International Journal for Business Anthropology:!

%d bloggers like this: