Discover your intuitive agility – I found mine dancing salsa!

Where salsa meets agile

I love to dance salsa. For me salsa dancing is vibrant, full of energy, passionate and somehow addictive. When I dance I feel that I am being one of the best versions of myself. 

Sometimes there are these moments where you dance with a total stranger and you align immediately. Only by following the music you are in absolute harmony with that person you do not know. You don’t know their dance style, you do not know their moves and you have no trust fundament with that person. Every time when this happens I am fascinated and I start to ask myself what are the reasons for this happening? And what can we learn from this phenomenon for organisations? 

When working according to agile principles we face a lot of change. We have to change dance partners (e.g.teams or leaders), dance to a new song (e.g. new processes) on a new dance floor (e.g. in a new environment). In the next couple of paragraphs I want to share with you what I believe are important conditions that make a good dance and where I see parallels to agile ways of working.


1.) Tools, processes and interactions. 

In a partner dance like salsa it is important that both parties have a certain basic understanding about the steps and a feeling for the music. It is not necessary that the dance partners know all the same figures. With the right knowledge base of steps and experience they will find their way back into the rhythm. More importantly though is that the dancers interact with each other. There are no words needed in salsa dancing. It is about sensing and nonverbal communication which I believe is itself a universal language. We learn to read our partners very closely by focusing on the smallest gestures. Reading the other person carefully so one can make the next step aligned, and allowing oneself to follow that person is all about silent observation, empathy and intuition. And they will tell you without words what to do. 

To share this same basis of how to approach the dance, links to the first value statement of the Agile Manifesto which is that individuals and interactions stand over processes and tools. Even though processes and tools help to develop a product or a service, it is the people who design, build, run and improve it. The best tool in the wrong hands is worthless. It is the communication between individuals and the interactions between team members that help them to collaborate and solve problems that might arise.

2.) Be present and communicate.

One of the most important things in salsa dance is to be present in the moment. While the leader has to plan the next figure the follower has to closely observe and feel what comes next. Small distractions from the outside can lead to false interpretations of moves and lead to trips or the dance dance partners getting out of the rhythm. They are in a constant state of uncertainty because they can not and should not predict what will happen, otherwise they prepare for a potential future figure, which never comes.

This relates to the agile principle of “inspect and adapt”. We try out, observe, readjust and move on. Thereby we can handle the complexity with all its unknown uncertainties. This means to pay off a little of time in order to regularly inspect what has happened, where one is, how things are going and then make use of these findings in order to improve and to adapt. Like in dance it is about looking what is in the present moment and sensing what might happen, instead of looking into a crystal ball and predicting the future. This links to the term of as “pre-sensing” (sensing and presence) coined by Otto Scharmer, which basically means to learn from the future as it emerges.

3.) Tension is needed.

In dance it is required that there is the right amount of physical tension between the follower and the leader. Too much tension makes a dance heavy and stiff. In contrast when there is no tension at all the dance can not evolve. There is a need for tension so the two can work together and figure out where the next move goes. In dance I believe there are different kinds of tensions which are important. For sure there is the physical tension, for example the tension in the arms, but then there is the mental tension, the deep focus and connection towards the other person.

In agile we often talk about tension based working and how tensions are not per se negative, but rather neutral. Tension is like unreleased energy, which we can direct towards our goals. Further, only by discovering where we have the right/wrong amount of tension we understand where we have to change something. Just like in salsa, working together towards one common vision should be the goal. If you feel resistance in a team or organisation, then people or things might not be ready yet. And we need to row a bit back, to feel and understand what is going on, and then tune in again. Don’t push it or force it, as then the magic of the dance disappears. Let’s work more tension-driven: there are loads of potential energy, but not unleashed still! Let’s listen to it, so it can be set free!

4.) Trust is essential.

Especially as a follower you need to trust your leader. You have to believe that the leader will guide you and take care of you during the dance. This means that he or she makes sure that you won’t bump into other people and that you are ready for whatever figure comes next. Similarly the leader needs to trust the follower, that he or she is willing to be guided. At the same time a leader can only make offers, the follower can still decide if he or she accepts the invitation for the next dance move. Apart from that, salsa dancing can also get quite close, another person is entering your personal space. It is important that everyone knows their own boundaries and communicates them. 

There are different levels of trust a team working agile needs according to my opinion. First, there needs to be trust within the team. Only with a climate of trust agile teams are able to communicate effectively and thereby quickly respond to changes as they emerge. A lack of trust often leads to a lot of time being spent on documenting and reporting. If instead the team and the leaders trust each other and believe that everyone will do their best to contribute to the same goal, team end-to-end responsibility is possible and collective ownership can happen.

5.) No self-dimensioning.

For me, in salsa dance it is not about proving that you know the best, but it is about making the best out of the combination of the two. Dancing in a pair means that it is rather a common effort to create a unique moment between the two. Showing off great figures can be nice, but only if the dance parter is on board. The roles of leading and following might not even be clear anymore in some occasions. 

We can also see in agile work environments that the role of a leader is changing. Who leads and who follows might not be that clear anymore in the new world: as only in co-creation we can shape valuable futures. Having a look at agile leadership styles we often find the term of a servant leader. This leadership style empowers others to develop and perform as highly as possible. Instead of controlling activities it is more about creating synergetic relationships. As in dance, in the end the medal does not go to an individual person, but to the team and the outcome they achieved together.

6.) Enjoy yourself!

It is about feeling aligned and alive: that makes it fun! Seek for the easiest way, take the most natural next step. Do not think of the end result, or what others may think of you, forget about what could go wrong and trust that each step can show you a new path, and you will be in flow. Create value at that right moment and future steps will follow! It is about letting go as well: let go of expectations towards the other one and the outcome of your dance collaboration, so how things SHOULD go or be, and let go of expectations about yourself, so how you SHOULD perform, how you will be perceived by the audience and your dance partner. 

In work environments many people still have the strong beliefs that work is not supposed to be fun, nor should it be easy. “It is not supposed to be fun, that is why they call it work”. In contrast I am convinced that it is a personal victory to find a work you love. When people are passionate about their work they are more productive and willing to invest time and passion into the project.

Start finding parallels yourself

With this article I’m not suggesting that managers and teams should all learn how to leap across the stage dancing salsa. I simply wanted to share with you my observation of where I see “Applied Agility” in my personal hobby. I have discovered interesting parallels and learned that if we change the context some of these agile phenomenons are intuitively applied. 

Open your eyes: where do you apply agile principles and values in your daily life? What is different there? Why is it according to your opinion easier in this context? And how could we make use of synergies to bring the agile transformation to organisations?

Mira Vanessa Gampp