8 Core Principles for a Successful Dojo

Product dojos have been increasing in popularity in recent years, and for good reason. Dojos use immersive learning to ultimately help teams improve transformation time, speed up the scaling of transformation across an organization, and enhance organizational learning and adaptability, leading to a higher return on investment.

When discussing dojos, there’s a tendency to focus on the mechanical aspects of the model — the workflow, method, short iterations, and immersive learning. But understanding what models and principles make the dojo innovative and successful may be even more important.

If you’re new to the dojo concept, check out this primer. To learn more about core Dojo principles, keep reading.

What are the Dojo Core Principles?

The Dojo approach is more principle-driven than process-driven. It is a methodology that grows and evolves based on experience and experimentation. There are a few principles common to every Dojo, and these core tenets define the Dojo as a concept.

1. Prioritize learning over delivery

Dojos are not meant to be delivery machines; instead, an emphasis on learning is central to the approach. Dojos focus first on the learning experience and treat high-performing delivery of working code as a side effect of learning. While the team may deliver fewer lines of code while in a dojo, the dojo helps ensure they deliver more of the right thing based on continuous feedback. When what they learn sinks in and sticks, speedy delivery will be a natural outcome going forward.

2. Align learning to the team’s actual work

The Dojo is truly about learning in context. In a dojo challenge, coaches intentionally incorporate the team’s real work — backlog, problems, ideas they want to explore – so they can immediately connect learning to their actual circumstances.

3. Focus on safety, not on failure

A dojo also has a cultural element. Often, teams would like to be more collaborative and innovative but struggle with a company culture that does not encourage participation, and may stifle innovation. Dojos coaches model exemplary behavior, set the tone for a blameless environment where teams can learn from mistakes, and encourage teams to experiment without the fear of being wrong. Beyond being empowered, team members are encouraged to suggest and try new ideas and immerse themselves in exploration. Participants eschew blame and welcome failed attempts as rich learning opportunities, opening the door to future experimentation. Rapid iterations in a dojo (every 2.5 days) help minimize the risk of being wrong.

4. Work small and exploit feedback

The work process within the Dojo is typically composed of hyper sprints, a typical pattern of two or two-and-a-half-day sprints over twelve sprint cycles (i.e., six weeks). Twice weekly, the team will go through planning, hands-on work, sharing work with stakeholders, and reflecting on the prior iteration to decide what to do and learn next. Feedback is immediately incorporated due to this accelerated learning cycle and rapid iteration. Doing this 12 times within the six-week time frame guides teams into working small, using feedback from stakeholders, customers, and the team itself to refine their planning. Furthermore, because teams operate in small units, the information stays fresh and cognitive load stays low.

5. Make everything visible

Participants try to make everything visible, from the software architecture they’re working on to their system landscape, the flow of work, and user journeys. There is high value in helping people consider things they may never have even thought about. If teams can visualize what they are building, they can have more valuable conversations about what they hope to achieve.

6. Use the buddy system

Collaboration is key to progression and ensuring safety. Whether in mob/ensemble programming, joint discovery, or more ad-hoc forms of collaboration, participants work in close proximity with their teammates. This allows for a heightened level of safety, much like having both a pilot and copilot in the cockpit of an airplane. Additionally, progress is better shared when newer team members are surrounded by people who may be further along the learning path. You can get a buddy who can help you tackle challenges they may have already experienced and impart the knowledge they have. For example, if other teams in the dojo have already received customer feedback on their product, sharing that knowledge would benefit you and your team when developing your product.

7. Success depends on commitment

All parties need to be invested in the Dojo to truly get the most out of it. As mentioned in a previous blog, coachability of teams, high-quality coaches, and leadership buy-in are major keys to success. How seriously do the teams take their challenge? Are they leaning into it versus having it pushed on them? Are team members open to experimentation, and are they willing to embrace learning from failure? Dojo challenges require both high collaboration and high commitment. Hence, team engagement is critical. Coaches must also be hands-on, knowledgeable, and have strong social skills to add value. Beyond that, leadership must be committed to supporting teams and ensuring that their activities align with organizational goals.

8. Principles evolve with experience

Every Dojo is a little bit different. While the principles listed above are core ideas participants need to keep in mind, every enterprise is facing a variety of different challenges, which will drive other principles and cultural shifts. Thinking about what you’re trying to accomplish with a Dojo may eventually lead you to uncover other principles that are as important as the ones covered in this post.

If you’re interested in learning more or getting started with a Dojo, get in touch with the Dojo experts at Cprime.

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Nate Ashford, Strategic Technical Coach
Nate Ashford, Strategic Technical Coach