Through discipline comes freedom
Through discipline comes freedom

Creating grit with Improvement Kata

Making becoming better a habit

I love the performing arts. Dance, especially contemporary dance, with bodies moving in harmony expressing the language of emotion through movement. Theater, with the intricacies of what goes on behind closed doors and the dynamics of relationships from someone else’s perspective. Live music, standing up in front of hundreds or thousands of people sharing a piece of your soul in your music.

I love anything where you can see how much blood, sweat and tears went into producing something that no-one else has ever done before. I played the piano my entire school career and know how much practice goes into being able to play one piece really well. So I appreciate when I see performers showcase what they’ve worked so hard for.

While I’m watching the show I think of how hard they must have practiced and how much work went into the production. Sometimes I think it’s crazy spending so much time and effort for only a few night’s worth of shows. In the same breath I gladly pay for the best seat in the house just for the pleasure it brings me for the hour or two I witness the final production. I never dream of buying the cheap seats, and I almost always buy the CD or program in support of the artists who made it possible.

In fact, I love art and artists so much that about seven years ago when I sat down and wrote down a manifesto for my life, it was inspired mostly by artists I admire. This is what it sounded like:

I want to think like Da Vinci, live like Paulo Coelho, grow old like Jim Hall, and die like the Buddha.

Most people know Da Vinci, the greatest inventor of all time and my ultimate hero in life, and many might be familiar with the author Paolho Coehlo, who is most famous for The Alchemist — a simple story about a shepard boy who followed his heart — whom I admire for the soul he puts in his books.

Jim Hall, however, is probably not so well-known. At least, I didn’t know him until one late night at an international jazz festival in Gent, Belgium. He was the final artist for the evening after a night of listening to the top jazz bands perform on stage. When he got onto stage he immediately grabbed my full attention. For a moment I wondered whether something was wrong.

An old man of 87 was helped by two men and supported by a cane onto the stage. I had no idea why such an old man would be taken onto the stage. It seemed out of place. Barely able to walk on his own, the man sat down, picked up his guitar, and started jamming. It was Jim Hall. And as he started playing, the years seem to evaporate from his body and he was the young hippie again who fell in love with music and decided to make it into a career.

I didn’t particular like the style of his music, but as I sat mesmerized with the passion streaming out of his entire body as he played, I thought that’s how I want to be when I grow old! I want to be able to do my craft with so much passion until the day I die.

Practice makes perfect

Artists spend 80% or more of their time practicing, preparing, with nothing to show. For the majority of the life cycle of a production they fail and fall, just to get up and try again and again until they get it right. They spend hours perfecting technical skills painfully repeating it over and over and over again in preparation of the performance.

In sports we see the same. Teams and individuals spend much more time practicing than what they spend competing or performing. Yet, in business we tend to jump in and expect ourselves to be perfect without any practice.

Maybe it’s because we think business is easier than the performing arts or sports, that our brains are so developed already at the age we start working that we don’t need to practice our thinking anymore. Maybe it’s because we don’t think we need to get better at our craft. That we’re born with it or will never be good at it.

Yet, no successful actor, musician, sportsman or even businessman is an overnight success. When you delve deep enough into their lives there is not a single one except from the bruises of emotional growth. No matter how good they are now, they didn’t get there by accident. They worked at it. Hard.

Even prodigies practice.

So why don’t we? Why do we expect ourselves to be the perfect leader, the perfect developer, the perfect designer without similar practice?

The cycle of improvement

We play it safe in the business world, following only the recipe’s that’s been proven to work in the past, making us unable to change or innovate. We become stuck and rigid following processes and methods that doesn’t apply anymore but we’re too scared of the impact of changing to try something new.

Or too busy to notice they’re not working anymore. We’re so busy following old habits that we aren’t able to change our ways.

The world around us is however changing.

That’s why agile was born. Calling for responding to change fast with no more time to practice in the background until we’ve perfected the recipe. Allowing us to adapt to change constantly as we respond to the ever changing environment around us.

At the heart of agile is a cycle of continuous improvement. The Deming cycle, or P-D-C-A cycle (Plan-Do-Check-Act) originated in the 1920’s and became the heartbeat of any quality initiative. Both TQM and ISO9001, the international standard for a Quality Management System, has at its foundation this cycle of continuous improvement. First you plan (P) what you want to achieve and how you will measure success, then you implement (D) the plan. Next you compare the expected results with the actual results ©, or as Deming proposed, you study the results; and finally you react (A) by adapting the plan or making a new plan before trying again.

Science follows the same approach. First you define a hypothesis (P) usually in the form of IF this THEN that, then you conduct an experiment to test your hypothesis (D), you check the results © and determine whether your hypothesis is true or not, adapting the hypothesis or the before starting again.

User design and game design also follow this cycle, first constructing a problem statement and a need (or a game idea), then prototyping a possible solution and testing it before trying again to make it better.

P-D-C-A in Scrum

All agile methods include this cycle of continuous methods. Scrum, for example, as a process framework, has the Planning meeting (P), followed by the sprint (D), then the Review © and finally the Retrospective (A). The output of one sprint cycle influences the next sprint cycle.

Typically when you start with Scrum you will find that the team isn’t able to deliver everything they committed to in the planning session. In the retrospective you discuss why you couldn’t complete all the planned stories and agree on what must change to complete all the stories in the next sprint.

At the following planning session and sprint you change your tactics based on your learning in the hope that you’ll be able to better meet your sprint goal this time. And each sprint you get a little better. Until one day when you finally meet your sprint goal and finish all the stories you committed to.

But you don’t stop having retrospectives at this point, you continue improving, taking on more stories, or making space for technical debt stories, or innovating.

Yet, in business we seem to approach life a bit differently. We think that once we have the right qualification we’re ready to go. Still so many people don’t get it right after the qualification. So how do you apply this scientific process to the business world?

Teaching continuous improvement thinking

The simulation game called Improvement Kata is designed to teach this process of continuous improvement.

Kata is a Japanese word meaning “form”. It is mostly used in martial arts to practice a specific form by continuous exercises. An improvement kata is a concept originating from Lean Manufacturing to practice continuous improvement.

The Improvement Kata game is explicitly raising awareness of this cycle of continuous improvement and showing the benefits of practicing an improvement in a game-like environment.

A simple challenge is presented to the group to order or build a pattern or artifact, like building a puzzle or assembling a pen from its different pieces within a set time. Once the time has elapsed, the team reviews their approach and sets a new target and try again. Each time, they get a little better until they finally reach the big goal.

Why the game works

The game works for a number of reasons, with three worth pointing out:

1. The power of baby steps

Like the story of the tortoise and the hare, it’s not the fastest one who wins the race, but the one who keeps going at a constant pace. The story of the tortoise and the hare is about perseverance towards a big, nearly impossible goal.

The key lesson in the game is that big changes should be approached in small, iterative steps, learning from failures before taking the next step. Like climbing a mountain, you don’t reach a big goal with the first try, you have to keep taking small steps, adapting only one or two elements at a time and keep going in the right direction. Success is not a straight line. It looks more like a zigzag up and down.

Many times people tend to make too many changes at once. Usually this results in more chaos than progress as we don’t know the impact of these changes on each other, getting unexpected results. When, however, you make one small change in your strategy you can see the impact and move forward more effectively. Improvement Kata teaches patience.

2. Overcoming superhero syndrome

Humans tend to over-estimate what they can do. You think it will take 5 days but then it takes 8. You think you can do it easily, but then run into an unexpected obstacle or unknown that you didn’t take into consideration when you planned the task. Almost always, this results in not meeting the planned deadline.

Your chances of success however incrementally increase when you view each task as an obstacle you haven’t mastered yet and need to find the best strategy to do it, rather than jumping in with the one way you already know how to do it.

When you play Improvement Kata, you become aware of this bias towards overestimating your ability and practice the skill of finding alternative ways to approach the same problem. When you are able to find alternative solutions to the same problem on a regular basis you are better equipped to deal with encountering unexpected problems.

Improvement Kata teaches you to become aware of your bias to overestimate abilities and practice the skill of finding alternative ways to approach the same problem.

3. Multiple lives

Playing Improvement Kata regularly forms a habit of handling all problems as overcoming obstacles but without the fear of failure, much as games do. In a game you usually have more than one life and when you do fail a level, you simply try again. In real life, however, we only are given one life, one chance at success, making us resistant to try alternatives.

We tend to fear trying something new, even though it might be a better solution, simply because we fear we will loose our one “life”. Improvement Kata makes us more comfortable to try different solutions, creating a more flexible mindset who don’t see only one answer to a problem as we are often taught at school.

4. Flexible mind

Learning any new skill creates more connections in our brain. The more connections you have the more possibilities are present.

Practicing a new habit in different ways don’t reinforce the specific implementation, but the underlying pattern. When we’re able to recognize patterns better we are better able to apply different solutions to different problems.

The original game is designed with a simple puzzle, however, key to its success is playing it with other prompts, such as the card game pattern used (as submitted by Melissa Perri) in the game instructions, assembling a pen, building lego and even as a Coding Dojo.

The more different ways you play the game, the stronger the underlying pattern is ingrained into your mind.

How to play Improvement Kata

Building new habits is a repetitive process. Scientific research proves that it is not the duration you spend practicing a new habit that matters, but the frequency.

Improvement Kata is best done by playing it regularly. It doesn’t have to be daily, but it has to be repeated at least every few days to a week using a different prompt.

Start with a very generic metaphor such as the card game in the game instructions. Ideally it is something most people are familiar with but is not related to the actual work or process at all. The KataToGrow website has a number of exercises (mostly designed for children) to show examples which can be modified according to the audience. Any simple task is suitable.

Another example of this game specifically applied to Scrum is called the The ball point game where the objective is to move a number of balls through a team with some constraints.

Do this for at least two or three sessions.

Next, move on to draw more alignment to how this skill can be applied in the work environment. For coders, there is an entire library of Kata’s on the Coding Dojo website. Pick any of the kata’s and follow the game instructions as per usual. After each iteration of code delete all the written code and start afresh to see if you can do it better.

Continue practicing the skill until it becomes automatic.

Getting better at getting better

Whether you’re a developer, a tester, a designer, a manager, an accountant or a musician, the goal should always be to get better. What makes us happy and motivates us is not mastery itself, but the feeling that we are able to master something. It is not in the achievement, but in the progress that we find joy.

So keep on going. One step at a time.

Kate coaches teams towards agility. She facilitates productive games to make work more engaging and learning more fun. Contact her for a personalized game workshop or visit for more details.

Originally published in The Startup on Medium: