Six Reasons Why We Do Two-and-a-Half-Day Sprints in the Dojo

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When we’re explaining the Dojo model to people who are unfamiliar with it, we often get a lot of head nods and other indicators that show people understand the model. They see how it’s different from other approaches to learning. Sadly, most of us have had experience with inadequate training programs. Many of us have worked in organizations who’ve sent hundreds of people through certification courses only to find the desired outcome doesn’t stick or never materializes in the first place. For us, the Dojo model just “makes sense”.

One aspect of the model that does raise eyebrows is the two-and-a-half-day sprints. People often question – “Why two and a half days?”, “Isn’t that too short?”, and “What are the advantages of sprints that long?” (Some even go so far as to say “That can’t possibly work.”)

Here are six reasons why two-and-a-half-day sprints are effective in the Dojo.

1. Repetition Fosters Learning

At our current client, Dojo challenges are six weeks long. Setting the sprint length to two and a half days results in teams completing twelve sprints during their challenge. If we set the sprint length to be two weeks, a common sprint length, the team would only complete three sprints during their challenge.

The two-and-a-half-day sprint format is a vehicle for us to foster learning through repetition. Teams using Scrum, for example, are getting frequent practice with the four core Scrum events (Sprint Planning, Daily Scrum, Sprint Review, and Sprint Retrospective). We’ve found that this interval of repetition helps the practices stick. Teams get better at them than they do if they practice them less frequently.

If a team is working on learning how to improve their CD pipeline, deliver microservices, or deploy to the cloud they also have opportunities for repetitive practice resulting from the two-and-a-half-day format.

Repetitive practice helps new learning stick.

2. Practice Getting to Done

Many of the teams we work with who are presumably already “doing agile” struggle with finishing stories by the end of the sprint. Often times Sprint Planning doesn’t produce a realistic plan, teams don’t allow enough time for testing, or they’re simply too optimistic about how much they can accomplish. All of these things contribute to teams carrying stories over stories from sprint to sprint.   

Ron Jeffries advocates for shorter sprints when teams are struggling to finish stories by the end of the sprint.

If you can’t get everything “done” (see above) at your current Sprint length, consider shortening your Sprint. If it’s two weeks, try one week. If you can’t get anything done in one week, try one day.

We’ve seen significant improvements in teams’ abilities to plan and execute a set of stories within a sprint over their six-week Dojo challenges. They come in acknowledging they often don’t complete stories every sprint and leave with the ability to “get to done” on a regular cadence. Often, it takes multiple sprints in the Dojo to make this change but we’ve got twelve opportunities to improve.

3. Teams (Finally) Learn How to Break Stories Down

“Instead of how big, we should be asking is it too big?” – David Hussman.

When it comes to planning sprints in the Dojo, we think it’s more valuable to ask “Can we get this story done in two and a half days?” than it is to ask “How big is this story?”.

Our friend, David Hussman, first got us moving away from focusing on “estimating” to focusing on “sizing”. Put another way, instead of a team getting bogged down in estimation meetings, the team focuses on breaking down stories until they can be done in two and a half days. For us, learning how to do this is significantly more important than learning how to get better at estimating.

Even when teams are delivering using Kanban, or they’re advocates of “no estimates” and use other techniques for predicting delivery timelines, breaking down stories so they can be delivered incrementally is an essential skill.

(For approaches to breaking down stories see this post.)

4. Learning is Supported by a Margin of Safety

There’s a lot of buzz these days about providing safe environments for teams to fail. Modern Agile holds safety as one of its core tenets. DevOps culture teaches us that when we have a problem with our systems we shouldn’t blame individuals, but instead look at the system itself.

Too often, teams are asked to learn while delivering. The message is clear – you have to learn agile/lean methods, or new technology, or new engineering practices – but it can’t impact the delivery timeline. Sadly, this often happens while delivering important or even mission-critical products. This is hardly an environment conducive to learning.

Failure is critical for learning. We learn from our failures and the stories that get created and retold about those failures. Do you remember any stories off the top of your head about a system that was designed so well there were never any outages? You might, but we’re guessing you know a lot more stories about system failures, what caused those outages, and what you learned from them.

In the Dojo, it’s critical to have an environment where failure is not only tolerated but where failure is understood to be a natural part of the cycle of knowledge creation. Without an opportunity for failure, learning becomes stifled. As part of the onboarding process we make sure stakeholders understand that delivery will slow down somewhat to make space for small failures and to make the Dojo a safe place for learning.

Small failures are the key. The two-and-a-half-day sprints provide a safe environment for learning. Failures at any level, whether they are product or technology related, can be corrected quickly. An investment of two-and-a-half-days is usually not very costly to the team.

At the same time, we want to provide opportunities for feedback, reflection on the part of the learner, and immersion back in the work in a timely manner in an environment where the learner feels safe. Two-and-a-half-day sprints help create this feeling of safety.

5. Frequent Retrospectives Lead to the Proper Mindset

Another common problem we run into with teams is they’ve stopped doing retrospectives and as a result have stopped focusing on continuous improvement. When we ask them why we’re told the retrospectives don’t have any value because they keep repeating the same problems over and over.

In these cases, we ask the teams to resume doing retrospectives for the duration of their Dojo challenge. During the retrospective, we ask the team to pick one item to work on improving over the next two-and-a-half days. In cases where the team identifies impediments that are largely beyond their control we ask them to focus on making one improvement within their control.

Sometimes the same idea for improvement will be carried over and continues to be worked on from one sprint to the next. But our experience in the Dojo has been that teams adopt a mindset of continuous improvement more easily than when they’re working within a two-week sprint cadence. The frequency of inspection and coming up with ideas for improvement helps the principle of continuous improvement stick.

We’re not saying every team should adopt retrospectives more frequently than on two-week sprint boundaries. What we are saying is that establishing the mindset is what’s important here.

6. There are More Opportunities to Ask “What is the next best investment in learning?”

An essential skill for Dojo coaches is knowing when to play the role of teacher and when to play the role of a guide who reflects behavior and ideas back to the team. The two-and-a-half-day sprint format provides a natural cadence to move back and forth between those roles.

One question we frequently pose to teams during Sprint Planning is “What’s our next best investment in learning?” The answers vary depending on the teams’ unique challenge goals.

In some cases, teams are focused on learning design thinking and product discovery so the discussion could be about coming up with ways to test a hypothesis about our product. Or, the discussion could be about pivoting to a new product idea entirely.

Other teams might have challenges focused more on learning new technology or engineering practices. For those teams the discussion might center around what stories to complete that will foster the desired learning.

Again, the frequency of stopping to reflect on this question every two and a half days fosters a mindset of thinking about product development and learning as a series of investments.

 

The six reasons are related and reinforce each other. Together, they help create an environment that supports learning and knowledge creation.

If you have experience with two-and-a-half-day sprints or if you have questions about running two-and-a-half-day sprints we’d love to hear from you.