29 January 2014
29 January 2014

Katas aren’t just for code

Learning to grow our people

Here at Redgate we’re trying really hard to make our people management and support something our staff love to be a part of. We want to develop and grow our talented people in new and ingeniously simple ways.

Here’s one of my favorite things we do…


All line managers here fulfill full-time roles beyond line management. When things are tough or hectic, being able to provide the best service we can to our people needs to be instinctive, not forced. Otherwise we’ll drop the ball.


Whilst we have monthly 1-1s, we don’t have annual performance reviews, formal goal-setting or mandatory development plans. Because these aren’t forced, we rely on our staff and our managers to support each others’ development, performance and needs all year round.

All our line managers receive training in a core set of “soft skills”. Coaching, holding great 1-1s, giving difficult feedback, Situational Leadership and 5 Dysfunctions of a Team. We’re also working on developing fresh training for Personal Development Plans (see some of our other blogs) and constructive performance-boosting feedback (even when there isn’t a problem).

This is great but one or 2 day’s training isn’t enough to do a great job. We need to practice.

Back in early 2012 I attended an Agile Coaches Camp in Norway.  At the camp I had my first experience of a Coaching Dojo. This is essentially deliberate practice for coaches.

We already run coding and testing katas for technical activities but hadn’t really considered doing the same for our managers. Having now attended many coaching dojos (and a few other types), I can’t believe we’d not tried them sooner. When I started out, I had some natural coaching skills but I really had to think hard about what I was doing. By participating in a few dojos, I’ve converted these into more instinctive skills (much like learning to drive) so that I can now apply these skills more naturally when working with my staff (and actually remember to do so).

When I got back to the UK, I chatted to our People Team about the concept and we agreed to give a coaching dojo a trial run in-house. It was a huge success so they decided to take it much further.

We now use the dojo format for deliberate practice in coaching, Situational Leadership and difficult feedback. We run dojos roughly every 6 weeks rotating across each of these topics with a mix of role play, real scenarios, “cue cards” and other variations. Attendance is optional and the only prerequisites are that you’ve previously been on training for the subject and are willing to participate and share.

We’ve even tried a couple of project management katas using a complex project scenario in small groups to explore things like risk management and project initiation

Beyond continuing to practice and trying out a few more PM katas; this year I’m hoping to take things a step further and use deliberate practice to improve how we give constructive feedback (part of our regular 1-1s).

Being confident in discussing areas of improvement with staff is difficult. Opening the conversation is hard, making it clear that there isn’t a problem but that you want to help people become even more great is hard, ensuring the message is received in the right way is hard. Deliberate practice, exploring scenarios and sharing with others make this all easier.

Bottom line – if you’re not doing so already, try getting some deliberate practice on managing your people (in a safe environment).

Even if role-play feels weird and artificial, I promise you, the lessons are going in. Every time you practice these skills that wiring in your brain is getting just that little bit stronger.

Using soft skills dojos will make you a better manager, you’ll provide a better service to your teams and your company which in turn will make your teams’ lives that little bit better.

If you feel like giving a coaching dojo a try for starters, here’s the really simple quick & dirty slide deck I used for the first ever coaching dojo we ran.



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