This is a transcript of episode 138 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick and Douglas Squirrel.

Both of us learned to improve our conversations through regular practise with others - and today we describe how you can do that too, by organising a Conversational Dojo using our (free!) kits and videos.

Show links:

Listen to the episode on SoundCloud or Apple Podcasts.


Listen to this section at 00:14

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi Squirrel.

Squirrel: So, you know, we should really rectify an error. We’ve left something out of our podcasts and I don’t know how we’ve managed to do it. You mentioned it this morning when we were setting up and I said, ‘gosh, we’ve never even talked about that’. And that is that we get a lot of questions from folks who listen to the podcast and read Agile Conversations and who are following our work. And they say, how can we learn about how this works? How can we work with others? And particularly how can we get people in our organisations to focus on conversations instead of the Agile rituals or the latest DevOps trend or something like that? How can we get them thinking about conversations as a way of troubleshooting their Agile conversations and their Agile team? And we have a whole method that we followed for years and that we’ve got a whole bunch of material on and I don’t think we’ve ever talked about it on the podcast. So we should fix that. What do you think?

Jeffrey: I think that sounds great.

Squirrel: Great! So why don’t you start us off by telling listeners about this thing called a conversational dojo?

Jeffrey: Sure. Conversational Dojo is the name that we’ve given to what we call a group practise session for the Agile Conversations skills. And the idea is that we want to have a time and space where we’re going to have deliberate practise of the skills. And we have come up with the methodology we talk about in the book. And we’ve talked about in the podcast before of the 4 R’s. And so in one way, it’s very simple conversational dojos where a group of people come together to deliberately practise the 4 R’s focusing on some element of conversation.

Squirrel: And we should fill people in, what are the 4 R’s? So what do we mean by that?

Jeffrey: The 4 R’s are record, so that would be to record the conversation. To reflect, which is to score your conversation with some type of tool or a whole set of tools depending and the dojo sessions vary a bit based on which you’re doing. And then you will have revise, to try creating a better version of the conversation and then roleplay, try speaking this revised conversation ideally with someone else. This is one of the advantages of group practise. You can get someone to play the other part. When you’re doing this, we find it very helpful that normally you don’t just go through once. You’ll have to be repeating what you do to go back and reflect on your revised conversation. And in the role play, it’s very helpful to do role reversal to to have the other person play your part and vice versa.

Squirrel: If you were counting along. That’s six of the 4 R’s. But it’s not maths, it’s Agile development. So we can get away with that.

Jeffrey: That’s right. So we lay this out in the book, we talked about in the podcast. And so we’ve told people that these are the steps you go through as you practise. These are the things to be doing to apply these skills that what we haven’t said so much about is how to go ahead and actually run a group session. And so we did address that, we had created a webinar that we did with I.T. Revolution, and we created a dojo kit to run through the steps of doing it. And I don’t think we need to repeat everything there. I think we can probably add a link in the show notes that would cover that.

Squirrel: Absolutely. Or if you search for conversational dojos, you’ll find that online.

Jeffrey: Yeah, that’s right. If you’re going to run these sessions, it’s worth getting the kids. And we do talk about how to some of the mechanics of running it. We also talk a bit about the different kinds of dojos. What we do want to add a bit to that today is I think it would be helpful for us to talk a little bit about some of the benefits of doing it. So this is why it makes sense for you to go and download the kit and read it and watch the video about how to how to run the dojos.

The Creation of Conversational Dojos

Listen to this section at 03:43

Squirrel: And one of the things that’s so astonishing to me that we haven’t- never in one hundred and thirty eight episodes talked about this. This is how we learnt this is how you and I got good at this, because we didn’t call it a dojo at the time, but we had a small group and we got together, looked at our conversations, looked at them fearlessly and bluntly and painfully, and we learnt an awful lot from it. So that’s I think the main reason for me that I would recommend it to others. We’ll go through some of the detail benefits you might get from it. But this is how you and I learn.

Jeffrey: Yeah, that’s a good point. And we weren’t forging new ground. We actually were inspired by the people at Action Design who did the same thing themselves. These were people who were students of Chris Argyris and started a group together. And they lay out in their section their own small group study sessions and how they would work and develop their skills. And that was inspiration for us. I think what we’ve done differently with the dojos, our recommendations are a bit different from theirs. I think their approach was for people who were very, very into the material. And we’re doing a significant amount of study and investment. And I think we’ve developed something with the conversational dojos that I think is more approachable and is helpful for people who are coming to the material for the first time and aren’t necessarily as committed students. What’s your thought on that?

Squirrel: I agree completely. One thing that is just occurring to me is, as you say, that is it reminds me of an Agile retrospective. So listeners might be familiar with that idea that you can bring in Agile team together and you don’t have to train them for years in detailed processes of Agile retrospectives and give them tests and make sure that they all have it completely down. You can get a bunch of people together, say, here’s the prime directive. We all have the best intentions at heart. Let’s look at what things went well and what didn’t. You know, I ran a retrospective last week just like that with people who’d never been in one before.

Jeffrey: Yeah.

Squirrel: So similarly, if you would like to improve the conversations in your organisation, a great way to do that is with a conversational dojo because it doesn’t require loads of preparation and knowledge ahead of time. And it can introduce people to the idea that maybe conversations will be a good thing to study.

Jeffrey: Yeah, that’s right. I think in the dojo kit, we kind of lay out that there are sort of three types of dojo sessions, and one is the foundational session and we specify how to run that. And that’s very good for onboarding people for their first session in the Shu Ha Ri type approach. I think of that as these three types of sessions somewhat relate to that. There’s the type where you’re sort of getting the basics. There’s a type where you’re practising different skills so you can choose amongst them. And then there’s the highest level where you are going to be using your whole set of skills. This is once you’ve practised many different styles and you’re sort of going all out, it’s like having a full sparring session as opposed to just practising a particular form over and over again.

Squirrel: And it just occurs to me that people might not actually know that we’re dojo if you don’t know that word, if you haven’t come across it in other contexts, it comes from martial arts. That’s why Jeffrey is referring to sparring. So it’s a place where you do deliberate practise of your martial art. For example, in this case, we’re doing the martial art of conversations, which isn’t very martial.

Jeffrey: Yes, that’s right.

The Benefits

Listen to this section at 07:50

Squirrel: So Jeffrey, what are the benefits that people might look for? So if someone saying, I’m not sure whether I should go try this, sounds like a lot of work. It’s not. But if they were thinking that, what benefits might make them understand why it might be helpful?

Jeffrey: Yeah, the very first benefit is that the dojo gives you a place to actually go and practise the skills to do the work. One of the things that we found is that people who read the book said, ‘oh, this is great. It makes a lot of sense.’ And then we would ask them ‘So have you folded a piece of paper and have you done a conversational analysis?’ And a lot of times they would say, ‘yeah, no, I haven’t quite gotten to that yet.’ There’s a motivational element to to this. And I think it’s a lot like having a buddy to go to the gym. It’s a lot of people find it. They’re more reliable showing up to do their workouts if they’re doing it with someone else. And I think it’s very much the same with the conversational dojos so that the very first benefit you get is that because you’ve committed to so other people, you’re much more likely to actually do it. And since these are skills that benefit from practice, that means you’re actually doing the practise. So that’s the fact that you’re doing the work at all is the number one benefit that I’ve seen that people get from- myself included from being part of these these dojos.

Squirrel: Mm hmm. And what else?

Jeffrey: Well, the next thing I think that happens is and this is especially true if you’re doing this with a regular group, perhaps in your workplace, we would do practise sessions at TIM where we would have these kind of reflection sessions every week for a time. And because we knew that we’re going to be doing this again and again and again between the sessions. One of the things I saw was an increased awareness of our conversations. And that helped in part because maybe it would happen right after conversation we would come and go ‘That didn’t go very well. Oh, wait, I could use this. This could be material for the next session’.

Jeffrey: And the second was that frequency of practice meant it was more likely to be able to pull upon the skills in the conversation while they were happening, because I had that mindfulness that I had that practise not long ago and I knew when it was coming up, I was much more likely to use the skills and also to find opportunities for learning.

Squirrel: And I should think that also had an organisational impact. So that meant that because people were thinking about and they knew that there was another one coming up in a week. I know I’ve seen this before where someone says ‘actually, you know, this would be a good conversation to analyse this week’. And the other person says, ‘yes, it sure would be. That didn’t go very well, the conversation between you and me’. So you can you can even get that kind of awareness in the organisation that this is an important thing.

Jeffrey: Yes, that’s a great point. And we definitely had cases like that where people would do conversation, analysis together. Where they would each analyse their own part of the conversation and they would share their results with each other. We actually have one of those conversations show up in the book, we put in there a “three column case study”. That was a case where a co-worker and I each went and recorded and analysed our part of the conversation.

Jeffrey: And it was very interesting to compare it, very insightful for us.

Squirrel: Because you guys certainly didn’t see it the same way. That was an understatement of the century there. And then how about in the session itself?

Squirrel: So now we’ve kind of talked about why the might be increasing awareness and organisational impact and so on. But what do you actually get in the session? How do your your skills at conversations and therefore your Agile results, how how do those improve?

Jeffrey: Yeah, I think there’s a really interesting element here, which is having other people help is amazingly helpful with conversational skills. The fundamental problem is our conversational skills aren’t as good as we would like because of cognitive biases that prevent us from seeing the mistakes that we’re making the 4 R’s and doing the conversational analysis and writing things out helps a lot. It helps us get some visibility of what we were doing in the conversation. But it doesn’t help us with mistakes that we make in the analysis and in our revision. We still have cognitive biases that apply and we’re still suffering from as we try to develop our skills. But those other people there, they don’t share our cognitive biases. At least they don’t share them about us. They may have them for themselves, but they can see through our cognitive biases. So as I am analysing my conversation and I’m saying, ‘oh, I think this is what happens, or I think this is a better version’, other people might say, ‘you know, I hear what you’re saying. But actually, I think this seems very similar to me. I don’t think you’ve actually changed that much’. They can point out mistakes. And again, if I go back to the gym analogy, this is like having other people to spot mistakes in your form that aren’t visible while you’re doing the exercise. Or any time else you get observers who are able to give you unbiased feedback on things that you can’t see while you’re in the middle of the practise, this is a huge benefit and it helps develop skills.

Jeffrey: I know Squirrel you talked about how we had our sessions and we often would come together and I had one time that was a perfect example of this. I had done the analysis ahead of time and I brought it in. I remember at the start of the session saying, ‘well, I brought this, but I don’t think there’s very much here. I think things went pretty well. I think I was pretty skilful in the conversation’

Squirrel: Oh boy!

Jeffrey: Yeah, exactly.

Squirrel: Famous last words.

Jeffrey: Very much so, I handed it out and I think we spent 45 minutes, at least, going through getting feedback from everyone, pointing out that, no, actually there were plenty of cases here where I hadn’t asked anyone questions, where I hadn’t been transparent, where I was making various mistakes, exercising unilateral control, rather than being the embodiment of mutual learning that I’d hoped for. So that was very, very eye opening for me.

Squirrel: And sticking with the gym analogy, the other thing that happens that’s usually very helpful in both the gym and certainly in a conversational dojo is when you give feedback that helps you to observe what you might be doing as well. So the process of actually noticing something in someone else, which is always easier. It’s easier to see someone else’s problem often, at least for me, has given me insight into what I might be doing. So I learn how I could improve my conversation.

Jeffrey: Yeah, that’s a great point.

Creating a Culture

Listen to this section at 14:35

Squirrel: Fantastic. Any other thoughts on conversational dojos or should we invite our listeners to download the kit and try it out for themselves?

Jeffrey: Well, I think there is one more element, earlier you mentioned the organisational impact that can happen because people who are both practising the skills will be able to use that in their disagreements in the actual work. And I think that there’s another organisational impact here, which is the message it sends in the organisation. What you’re sending is really kind of a cultural message, if you’ve organised something in your team or your department or the company has organised this, you’re sending a message saying this is important to us. This is the kind of thing we do, the kind of thing we value. We care about how we communicate with each other. We care about getting better at it. It’s worth spending time. It’s worth thinking about how we relate to one another. And I think that is a very strong message of cultural change. This is a very big way that you demonstrate to people that culture isn’t something you just talk about, something that you actually live, that you put time and energy behind it. And I think that has a tremendous impact. And I think that’s amplified. If the people in the dojos include people who are in leadership, the more influential those people are who are showing up, the stronger it reinforces the message that this is something the organisation cares about.

Squirrel: And I just don’t want listeners to think this is something you can only do if your CEO is involved. So absolutely, that’s beneficial. But I strongly believe and certainly I’ve seen it work that you can start with a small group in the middle of the organisation someplace and see the benefits, then accrue elsewhere and get more attention from others in the organisation. So although it’s very, very beneficial to have a leader involved, you don’t have to. You could start, get benefits, see the change in your own team and your own organisation, and then let that ripple outward. So both of those work.

Jeffrey: That’s a great point. And I think for a team that’s working together that says, you know, it’s it really helps that team identity, even if it’s just them. This is the thing that we value as a team and it will bring that team closer together. That’s a great point, it does not need to be something that is blessed by management. It can start anywhere.

Squirrel: Start the revolution from below.

Squirrel: Excellent. So we’d love to hear from listeners who are trying out conversational dojos or who are confused about them or try them and they don’t work or anything else. We like hearing from you. If you’re interested in trying these, have a look at the show notes or just search for conversational dojos online. You’ll find a couple of different things. You’ll find a download of the conversational dojo kit we mentioned, A recording of the webinar we mentioned. We are speaking at the Enterprise Summit, which is nominally in Las Vegas, but no one’s going to Las Vegas these days so it’s happening online so anyone can participate. We’re speaking on October the 13th, if I remember right, that’ll be in the in the link as well. And there’s, of course, the London Organisational Learning Meetup Jeffrey, which you organised and which isn’t in London either. It’s all virtual these days. You should really change the name. And that is in many cases, you run that as a dojo, don’t you?

Jeffrey: Yeah, that’s right. So we run dojos sessions there twice a month now and anyone’s welcome to join.

Squirrel: Excellent. Well, links to all of those will be in the show notes and easily Google-able, I believe, as well. And of course, we’d like to hear from you if you try any of this stuff. You can find us on, email, Twitter, all of those good things.

Squirrel: And we’ll be back next week. We took a break last week, but we don’t take breaks very often. So we’re here every week. And if you hit the subscribe button in whatever it is that you use to listen to us, then we’ll be here again next week to talk more about troubleshooting Agile.

Squirrel: Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.