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InfoQ Homepage Articles Q&A on the Book Creating your Dojo

Q&A on the Book Creating your Dojo

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Key Takeaways

  • A dojo is an immersive learning environment where whole teams improve their practices on a range of skills
  • Using dojos results in better learning and retention and the whole team builds their competencies together
  • Dojo coaches are the main people who deliver dojo experiences for teams. It’s important for them to understand how coaching for learning differs from coaching for delivery.
  • The dojo approach works well for how adults learn by providing customized coaching at the team and individual level as opposed to following some prescribed curriculum
  • The dojo is a product itself and needs someone to define the offerings, determine what practices and skills will be taught, and very importantly–define how they will measure improvements.

Dion Stewart and Joel Tosi have written a book Creating your Dojo: Upskill your Organization for Digital Evolution. The book is a "how to" manual that shows organizations how they can go about creating immersive learning environments where whole teams learn new skills while building their products.

You can purchase the book here and InfoQ readers can download a sample chapter here.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

Dion Stewart and Joel Tosi: We’re excited about the successes we’ve seen in organizations who’ve created dojos. We want to help foster the growth of a community around creating and running dojos. We hope that people will create dojos in their own organizations using the book as a guide.

Over the last five years we’ve worked directly with eight organizations to help them create their own dojos. Several of our partners encouraged us to write the book to help them run their own dojos, get buy in from stakeholders, and help new hires get an understanding of how the dojo works.

In addition, as dojos are becoming more popular vendors are rebranding existing offerings such as labs, workshops, or conventional training as dojos. Unfortunately, what they’re offering has little to do with what we think a dojo is and the dojos we’ve helped organizations create. We wrote the book in part to clarify the differences between dojos and other methods for helping people learn new skills.

InfoQ: Who is this book for?

Stewart and Tosi: The book is for anyone interested in starting and running a Dojo in their organization. This includes transformation and continuous improvement leaders as well as people who work in dojos including managers, product managers, and operations managers. And obviously, it includes coaches. Dojo coaches are the main people you need to deliver dojo experiences for teams. It’s important for them to understand how coaching for learning differs from coaching for delivery.

InfoQ: What is a dojo and why is it something people should care about in a business context?

Stewart and Tosi: In digital product development, a dojo is an immersive learning environment where whole teams improve their practices on a range of skills spanning the entire product development value stream. The word "dojo" is a Japanese word that means "place of the way". It’s used to refer to meditation and martial arts spaces. The first principle of a dojo for product development is that it’s about learning over delivery. Having a separate physical space is important because it reinforces the mindset that being in the dojo is different from your normal day-to-day work.

In a dojo, teams learn to work together in new ways, applying new practices, while working on real-world products – all with the help of dedicated dojo coaches. Teams learn practices holistically. For example, teams learn how setting up a continuous delivery pipeline that supports A/B testing can help them with product discovery.

Advocates for the dojo model understand that knowledge can’t simply be captured and taught as a set of best practices. Instead, we need to take what we know from systems thinking and complexity science and apply that knowledge to creating learning organizations. Most traditional forms of training fall far short of that.

InfoQ: Could you elaborate on that? How is the dojo approach different from simply sending people on a training course together?

Stewart and Tosi: This is a question we get pretty frequently and it’s a good question. The easy answer is a training course, even when the whole team is together, is rarely done in the context of the team’s product. The constraints and systems of the organization are set aside. We structure the dojo around learning while building your product, in your organization, with your constraints. Not only does the team learn new skills - the organization learns about friction that exists at a systemic level that hinders creating great products.

Beyond that, a training course is usually paint by numbers - follow a set of steps and you succeed. The dojo isn’t paint by numbers; you learn where you are without following a prescribed learning path - gnarly code and all.

We’ve rarely seen a whole team learn together in a training course. They may all spend two days in an agile boot camp together, but those focus on learning a process. In the dojo, teams learn practices along the entire value stream. They learn technical practices and product discovery practices, not just process.

InfoQ: You make a point that using the dojo approach fits well with the way adults learn - why is this?

Stewart and Tosi: We devote a whole chapter in the book to how we learn and how our efforts at upskilling our teams are often at odds with what we know about learning. We’ve already touched on some of these ideas – learning in the context of real work, making learning experienced based, and learning practices together holistically.

In addition, there needs to be a margin of safety for failure because we often learn best from our failures. There also need to be opportunities for practice and repetition. The model we’ve used with a lot of success is to do two-and-a-half day sprints with a focus on learning goals – not just delivery goals. That creates a safe environment for people to practice in.

Adults have different motivations for learning than children. Adults want the learning to apply to their daily lives instead of being based on more general learning. They also have a wealth of experience and knowledge they’ve already accumulated through years on the job. It’s important to meet them where they are at and help them learn practices and skills that matter to them. The dojo meets these needs by providing customized coaching at the team and individual level as opposed to following some prescribed curriculum.

InfoQ: Why is using a dojo effective for high-tech teams, will the approach work for other areas of a business?

Stewart and Tosi: We think a dojo can be effective for any team that’s trying to learn new skills and practices. While most of the teams we have worked with have been highly technical, we have also had non-technical teams come in. In particular, we have worked with teams from human resources and teams from learning & development departments. The specific practices and skills they work on are different, but there is still a focus on learning. The ability to experiment rapidly and frequently in a safe space guided by coaches was deeply impactful for all of their learnings. In addition, two people who attended one of our workshops are successfully running a dojo for marketing teams where they learn skills like copywriting.

In the tech space, dojos are super effective. It’s sad but historically technical practices are never given adequate time to gel in typical approaches to training. Go to this class or that class for a couple of days, then you should be competent and should immediately go faster. Technical people are assumed to know, or use their own time to keep up to speed on, everything ever conceived about writing code and testing and maintaining systems. There is no time to slow down.

In the dojo, when we allow teams to slow down and give them adequate time to practice technical practices in their context (code bases, network, deployment environments, etc.) - the results are that teams get better at responsible engineering in a way they can sustain. When teams can build systems in a more responsible way and understand their product better so there is less thrashing in the code - suddenly there is less rework, less toil, and more joy. These are great results we frequently see with teams in the dojos.

InfoQ: What does it take to set up a dojo in an organization?

Stewart and Tosi: At a basic level you need a space for teams to learn in and coaches who can work with the teams. Ideally, your space and coaching staff can support more than one team at a time. Having multiple teams in the space creates energy around learning and teams start helping each other learn - which is amazing to witness. The space where teams work should be flexible and allow for changing the configuration easily. It should be set up for learning - a common area for work that includes a large TV/monitor, plenty of whiteboards, and other materials (stickies, markers, etc.)

Prior to setting up the space, an organization needs to be clear about why they want a dojo. What is the impact they want learning to have? How will they know if they are having that impact? What practices and skills do teams need to learn? What are the strategic goals for the company? How will a dojo support achieving those goals? Think of the dojo as a product for your employees - how would you know it is a great product? What problems is it solving? Start there.

InfoQ: Who should be involved in setting up and running the dojo?

Stewart and Tosi: In most organizations, there is a champion for the dojo. In our experience, this person usually comes from technology. They often also serve as the manager of the dojo staff. Ideally there’s also participation from people in "the business" – that’s when the real impact happens.

Dojos also often have a dedicated product manager. The dojo is a product itself and needs someone to define the offerings, determine what practices and skills will be taught, and very importantly – define how they will measure improvements. This last point is important. We’ve seen a few organizations launch dojos because of the successes they’ve seen in other organizations. Sometimes they launch without a clear plan of how they will measure improvement. At some point, someone will ask for those metrics. When dojos are being bootstrapped, the same person can often play the role of champion and product manager.

Beyond that, of course you need coaches. If you don’t have internal coaches, you may need to bring a few consultants in to help grow your own coaching staff. But you need to have your own coaches. Remember – the learning should happen in the context of real work. No one knows your context better than your own employees.

The best dojos also have an ops person. They are not only the people making sure the dojo is running smoothly (ensuring supplies are available, handling scheduling, etc.) - they are often the heart and soul of the dojo. They help with marketing, evangelizing, and getting feedback from teams to make sure they are having great experiences.

InfoQ: How do you prevent the dojo from being just another fad - how do you make the habit of learning persistent?

Stewart and Tosi: That is another great question and one we talk about quite a bit, not only among ourselves but with the dojo community at large. Right now there’s a need to establish the principles and values defining what a dojo is and is not. The book is a step toward establishing those principles and values. Dojos are not just "training centers". It’s important to understand the differences.

Ideally, teams leave the dojo having gained the ability to incorporate learning and continuous improvement into the way they work. During a team’s time in the dojo the coaches will encourage the team to take on more and more responsibility for their own learning.

We can make the habit of learning persistent as long as the dojo is focused on learning and helping create learning organizations. We just need to embrace learning.

About the Authors

Joel Tosi began exploring ways to build better software as an engineer and architect in the early 2000s. Since then, Joel has coached software teams of all sizes in industries ranging from healthcare to finance. He's spoken at and helped organize conferences around the world. Joel lives in Chicago with his wife and three children.

Dion Stewart has coached software teams at Fortune 50 companies in healthcare, finance, investment banking, retail, entertainment, and more. Given his developer’s background and transformation consulting experience, Dion is a sought-after speaker who’s given talks at QCon, Agile Development West, Craft Conf, and DDD Europe. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and two cats.

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