Agile Dojo - Part I

A crew of 9 people. Confined to a small room. Away from their mates. Out of the comfort zone of their normal workplace. For six weeks. They only had their MacBooks and an Agile Coach. Sounds scary, aye!! This was Odyssey crew in a six weeks Agile Dojo sans the excitement along with heaps of experimentation and learning.

Odyssey participated in an Agile Dojo starting from Oct 23. The Dojo made the crew challenge the status quo, gave them an opportunity to carry out various experiments, introduced them to new tools, techniques & practices to foster collaboration, refine team dynamics, bring structure to their approaches and improve the way they work in general! It was a time to pause, observe and ponder over things!

As a part of the Odyssey crew and a passionate Agilist, I am excited to share with you all a few glimpses of our ‘dojo' adventure ride!

Why did we do the dojo??

In daily hustle and bustle of getting the product out to the customers, it's challenging for the technical teams to constantly pay attention to the ways of working and to continuously look out for improvements. To make ‘good teams great' has always been part of MYOB's core culture and the Agile Dojo was a fun way to do the same.

The Dojo provided a safe environment to experiment, be it a technique, tool or a practice! The vision was to get a significant uplift in team capabilities by finding better ways of working through experimenting and iterating the learning process over short cycles.

To quote our Agile Coach, "Dojo is a time-boxed immersive accelerated learning opportunity".

What did we do before entering the Dojo?

The crew was given a ‘Dojo charter' to fill which included ‘Overall Objectives' and ‘Top 3-5 things to focus on and improve'. We brainstormed and came up with quite a few things which we wanted to learn or experiment on. There were quite a few evident challenges & struggles on the list. Surprisingly, we were also curious to discover better ways of doing things which we thought we were doing quite well! There were some vague focus areas as well, which were addressed commendably by the coach later! It took us a couple of sessions to get the charter correct in terms of all action items being achievable and the consequent improvements to be measurable.

Filling the charter was pretty much the only tangible preparation we did before entering the dojo! Apart from this, we were told to have a positive and ‘Can do' attitude! The coach made it clear that there is no "Cannot" for the entire duration, it's just that we are not there ‘yet'!

What principles and guidelines were used?

The routines of ‘Improvement Kata' and ‘Coaching Kata' were used for learning, adopting, experimenting and coaching. These are few of the lesser known yet very powerful tools from Lean Management. The capability to continuously evolving and learning is as important as delivering in order to keep moving forward and survive long term.

Kata is a structured routine/practice one practices deliberately as a beginner to learn a new targeted skill. With time, as the skill develops and becomes a second nature, it transforms into a habit.

Kata helps translate concepts into reality and can also be used to refresh the basics.

By definition, ‘Improvement Kata' is a four-step pattern that models a scientific way of thinking and acting so that, with practice, anyone can learn it. The four steps are:
a. Understand the Direction
b. Grasp the Current Condition
c. Establish the Next Target Condition
d. Iterate toward the Target Condition

Improvement Kata is the fundamental pattern for improving, adapting, innovating & Managing at Toyota. It's a very methodical way of improvement and when paired with Coaching Kata, the results are even better!
Coaching Kata uses improvement Kata pattern through deliberate practice while using real-world problems and goals.

How was the dojo run?

To accelerate the learning, experimenting and getting feedback, we operated in 2.5 days cycles. This called for standups twice a day, planning and grooming sessions at the beginning of every cycle, showcase at the end of each cycle. We also had conventional retros twice a week and few feedback sessions spread throughout the dojo duration.

Apart from the above traditional common ceremonies, various sessions were organized to address the issues/items from the charter, or based on the observations made by the coach. Some of them were facilitated by the coach himself while we had few SMEs running some specific sessions.

To cope up with the intensity of the environment, there were team building activities, retros, and discussions over coffee, barbeque etc. And then few things on-demand basis! After all, it was an Agile Dojo :)

Some thoughts from the crew members before the Dojo:

“I was really excited when the dojo was initially announced to the team. It was presented as an opportunity to learn, grow and experiment, which I thought would be a great team-bonding and process improving exercise. I was hyped!”

“The dojo was something that I was looking forward to. The idea of questioning myself, spending time on improving the way I work rather than the work itself, experimenting various methods to see what worked best for us as a team, was very appealing. We had a bunch of very specific objectives we wanted to accomplish during our time at the dojo. I knew that it was going to be intense, and I entered the dojo environment with an open mind and a goal to learn. This was very important for me personally, because I am a new addition to the team and this would provide me with the opportunity to learn more about my team.”

“I have been in more than five agile workshops, which weren’t so pragmatic and most of the tools supplied to the team weren’t usable, I didn't have any expectation that this workshop will be any different.”

“It’s a convenient place to go, and may save us much time from redundant meetings. Let’s try it”

And, from our Agile Coach:
“I was excited and looking forward to the opportunity. I had no particular expectations as it was a clear slate for the crew, myself and MYOB. I was concerned that the crew had not been able to decide on 2 or 3 things to focus on and improve but still had 15 items on their list and some of those were quite vague. For instance, “Improve productivity” – what on earth does that mean? I was hoping for a disciplined approach to experimenting and a chance for the team to step away from their keyboards to reflect and grow. I had various activities and workshops planned but only for the first 2 weeks as I would largely be adapting to the needs of the crew as they arose and incorporating the 15 areas identified in the chartering process.

Conversations with Target (US) Agile coaches indicated that the dojo can be a stressful time for individuals which worried me. They also recommended 2 coaches in the dojo. I was doing it alone.“

The next post will detail the activities in the six weeks of Dojo! Stay tuned!!