There’s enough agile theory out there. The hard part is making lasting change, particularly at enterprise scale, when you put agile into practice with a given team or organisation. Nor is it a one-off activity: developing expertise for where to look and how to continuously improve takes time and experience, for which there seem to be no shortcuts.
The role of an agile delivery specialist can also be a lonely one, as you’re usually coaching teams where everyone hails from a different discipline than you. Few opportunities exist to work alongside others in your own role, and hone your craft together in the wide range of activities involved in digital product discovery and delivery.
But we found a way to bring our delivery community of practice together through a common mission, building shared skills and having fun while doing it (not just meeting to talk about it). This is the story of how we brought agile to life – in dojo form.
Testing and learning
It all started at a community meet last year, organised by one of our delivery principals, Raph. In it he shared an ‘agile radar’ he’d come across – a visualisation of practices, tools, metrics and competencies from across the wider world of agile.
Some topics we’d used, some we’d heard of, and some were brand new to us. We made it a point to divvy up the less well-known topics and report back our findings. One I picked up to investigate was agile dojos.
Is there more to a dojo than just marketing speak?
The radar only offered a marketing brochure as a starting point – the idea was a physical space to accelerate agile learning-by-doing with clients (something more commonly applied for technical skills e.g. coding dojos). While clearly conceived as a pre-Covid offering, after further research, the ambition behind the idea stuck with our group. Creating a safe space for learning, where work could be practised hands-on alongside peers, felt like it would benefit our delivery community in developing our skills for future client work.
We decided it would be a worthwhile experiment to try bringing the concept to life, but rather than recreate the physical offer, to adapt it to our emerging world of remote-first work as delivery practitioners.
I took the opportunity to design a practical exercise for our next community ‘guild day’ (with a bit of Olympic flavour to coincide with Tokyo 2020), where we could pilot the concept as a group workshop:
The experiment: a Kanban flow dojo
In agile delivery, one of our most common sources of performance information is a team’s Kanban board. The idea behind the dojo was simple: train our muscle for diagnosing what might be working well (or not), with limited context, just from studying the structure and contents of a given team’s Kanban board.
The dojo led to rich discussions (and some competitive spirit!) as our small breakout groups worked under the clock to troubleshoot how this fictional team appeared to be working. Each group generated a host of powerful questions to ask around story sizes, WIP limits, and acceptance criteria – all important factors we’d consult on in projects with our clients.
Cross-group learnings were shared afterwards, and we recognised the best insights through a round of voting, crowning the winning team on a virtual medals podium. Our pilot was a success!
Scaling for impact
How then to take the pilot to the next level? We brought the idea back to our delivery guild leaders (a working group named Badger Prime) who were already at work reviewing feedback from the rest of the community guild day.
The community feedback was clear that we wanted to spend more time together and continue immersing ourselves in industry best practice. We also wanted to build on what we already knew, find opportunities to share more widely, and use it to support individuals’ progression.
Goals from Badger Prime, alongside the results of a community pulse survey
With these improvement goals in mind, Badger Prime crafted a mission for our community to bring more dojos to life, inspired by the “see one, do one, teach one” model. As a format, dojos seemed like the perfect combination of craft building and team building, in addition to making the fundamentals of agile actionable and teachable as an outcome. By putting this forward as a shared challenge, we hoped to unleash the creativity of our team in designing great new scenarios we could all learn and benefit from.
A simple community progress board became a regular feature of our team’s biweekly catchups. In the Kanban spirit of visualising our work, we captured who was developing new dojo content, running dojos with different teams, and “templatising” past dojos to be reusable by brand new facilitators.
Agile dojos produced by the Red Badger delivery team in 2022
As time went on, we celebrated progress with more and more dojos built and run across the company. The exercises spanned everything from sizing and estimation, to roadmapping, running agile ceremonies, and team dynamics. What they all have in common is presenting a scoped challenge, requiring group effort to solve, and the space to discuss learnings across groups to help solidify the concepts being demonstrated.
Part of the fun was each dojo designer adding a touch of personality to their exercise – whether spotting the tension between Santa’s elves during their Christmas retrospective or responding to stakeholder requests from the chief product officer of a pet products startup, Pablo Escobark.
We also managed to run a wider session on forecasting with a friendly client, true to the original idea we explored from our first radar session!
An example dojo ‘how-to’ guide in our delivery knowledge repository
Give dojos a try
There’s a lot to be gained by digital product companies who make a habit of bringing agile concepts to life in a fun and experiential format with their teams. And I think that moving beyond showing and telling, to collaborative doing, is frequently overlooked when trying to build a culture of continuous learning, improvement, and innovation.
We’re excited by the potential for dojos to become another part of how we engage with our clients, benefitting both ongoing project deliveries and increasing agile experience across their wider organisations. Ultimately, we see dojos as one example of the kind of collaborative experiences that can spark lasting cultural change.
Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you’re interested in learning more about how dojos work or if any of the agile concepts we’ve designed them around has struck a chord. We’re more than happy to share a ‘behind the scenes’ look with you, and what our delivery experts have learned from their experiences in running them!