In one of the latest updates of the Scrum Guide, the five values of Scrum – commitment, focus, openness, respect, and courage were officially added to the guide. Values are something that I consider very important as they define behaviors in the team, but they are also something that I find very hard to explain to people who are new to Scrum.

I have been a part of a great Scrum team where all of these values were manifested, and I can give examples of behaviors that demonstrate these values, but still I’ve been searching for ways to convey the meaning and importance of living these values. A couple of years ago I started practicing Karate, and as I get more and more familiar with its philosophy, I find significant resemblance between what you can see in the Karate dojo and on a mature Scrum team. Inspired by my experience, I recently came up with a metaphor that I find useful to share with the teams I coach about Scrum, so that they get a better understanding of the values and their importance. For those of you who have practiced Karate before, this metaphor might make Scrum sound a lot more familiar, and for those who know Scrum – well, you might decide to try Karate as well 🙂

So, here are some of the things I learned in the dojo that apply so well to an Agile context as well. I view every training session as an iteration towards the goal of creating a better version of myself, fitter and stronger, a goal that is shared with the team I work out with at the dojo. To achieve this goal, there are a few essential prerequisites for us.

#1  Commitment

Being committed to the team’s goal means doing anything that you are capable of to support the team reach it. In the dojo, being committed means being fully present and dedicated to the training session. I have observed how even when one individual in the group lacks 100% commitment, and demonstrates it by not giving their best to follow instructions and participate in the exercises, it ruins the quality of the whole training session. The Sensei then needs to pay special attention to this individual, and cannot attend to the needs of others.

This is what happens sometimes on Scrum teams when full commitment is missing – the ScrumMaster might find themselves catering to the needs of individuals in order to keep the spirit of the team high, which might limit team’s capabilities to act.

# 2 Focus

Since I started practicing Karate quite late, I found that being focused is absolutely crucial for me in the dojo, otherwise I end up with my limbs entangled when doing even relatively simple exercises. It’s just that you need to take into account so many different things at the same time – how you move your legs, hips, hands, head, your target and the energy you send with your “zukis” and “geris” (hits and kicks). I notice the same level of focus in my Sensei even though he is ways more advanced than I am. Focusing allows you to target your full energy towards the goal, and it enables you to be efficient with your moves.

In a Scrum team, focus on the Sprint goal is essential to enable the team produce a meaningful working product increment. To be able to do that, every individual on the team needs to be focused as well – on the most important tasks that need to be finished today, so that their energy is targeted in the best way to enable the team proceed as fast and well as possible.

# 3 Openness

Learning requires transparency and collaboration. We need to understand what is happening in our team and project, so that we can inspect the product and the process and adapt to increase our efficiency and effectiveness. And we need to share what we know, so that we can collectively as a team move ahead and become better. This is achieved through self-reflection but also through feedback from the others. Being open first of all to ourselves – to admit mistakes, and to take actions to improve, and then to the others we work with – to act as a mirror, so that people around us can better understand their own behaviours, and to support them with our own knowledge, so that they can improve as well.

In the dojo, the best learning comes when you practice with your peers and they give you feedback about what they are noticing – the good moves and also the not so good ones. Often this feedback comes from people who are much more experienced, and sometimes even newbies can point you to an element that you are not doing quite well, and help you improve it. So, we are open to give and take this feedback for our own good and for the good of the entire group, which can progress better on the improvements that every individual makes. This creates trust and shapes a stronger team, which is demanding towards each other, but in a supportive and constructive way.

# 4 Respect

The above point is strongly related to this one. In Karate culture, respect to the Sensei is mandatory, and so is the respect for everybody in the dojo. It doesn’t matter if they are black or white belt – they are part of the team, and they contribute with the best of effort, skills and intention they have.

Same is true for a team – treating each other with respect, giving credit to what every individual is good at, and respectfully addressing the drawbacks, while supporting the person to overcome them, is a way to build a team spirit of trust and collaboration. Working in such environment, people are motivated to become better, so that they can contribute more to the common goals.

# 5 Courage

Finally, it requires courage to commit, be focused, open, and respectful even when we are facing challenges. Stepping in the dojo for the next training session after the last one that gave you muscle cramps and aches requires courage too. And when you do it, you feel proud of yourself and of your team.

P.S. And if you have come this far reading the blog, here is a bonus for you.

# 6 The 100 Kata Challenge

Yesterday (25.10) was the International Day of Karate and we celebrated it with a special challenge – going through an exercise called Kata 100 times in a row. It is a spirit-building exercise and it requires both physical endurance and mental will power to continue to the end even when you feel you can’t go on. We all made it, and we were exhausted but happy at the end. It was a personal achievement, and as our Sensei put it – “a personal learning and growth step”. But it was also a team’s achievement, as the collaborative team spirit supported each and every one of us. It is in our peers’ dedication and determination to continue that we found additional personal inspiration and stength to go on when we were at our lows. The feeling reminded me of how I’d felt working in some of the best Scrum teams I’ve seen. Continuing to sprint when it gets hard, is possible when you feel backed and supported by your peers. Delivering successfully brings a feeling of personal pride, learning, and development, but also pride in the capabilities and potential of the entire team.

I am using this blog as an opportunity to express my thanks to the team at Shiro Dojo that was part of the challenge for bringing this feeling and for helping me grow and learn – not only in Karate but also in other aspects of what I do 🙂

5 things you can learn about Scrum from Karate (or vice versa)