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Shuhari: A mental model for the phases of mastery

If you have ever watched a Karate Kid movie or even the more recent Cobra Kai Netflix series, then you may have heard of the term ‘ Shu Ha Ri ‘. I was introduced to (along with the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition, but I’II save that for another article) several years ago and remains my most favourite model because of its simplicity and versatility. Shu Ha Ri can genuinely be applied to virtually any situation.

What is Shu Ha Ri?

Shu Ha Ri (Kanji: 守破離 Hiragana: しゅはり) is a Japanese martial art (like Aikido), which concept describes the stages of learning to achieve mastery.

Shuhari roughly translates to:

Shu (守) “Obey the Rules.”

Ha (破) “Bend the Rules.”

Ri (離) “Transcend the Rules.”

Renowned Aikido master teacher Endo Seishiro summarizes Shu Ha Rias follows:

“It is known that, when we learn or train in something, we pass through the stages of Shu, Ha, and Ri. These stages are explained as follows. In Shu, we repeat the forms and discipline ourselves so that our bodies absorb the forms that our forebears created. We remain faithful to these forms with no deviation. Next, in Ha’s stage, once we have disciplined ourselves to acquire the forms and movements, we make innovations. In this process, the forms may be broken and discarded. Finally, in Ri, we completely depart from the forms, open the door to creative technique, and arrive in a place where we act in accordance with what our heart/mind desires, unhindered while not overstepping laws.” (Wikipedia. 17 Sept 2012.)

Martin Fowler, one of the creators of Agile Manifesto, defines Shu Ha Ri in a context relevant to the Agile adoption patterns:

Shu – In this beginning stage, the student follows the teachings of one master precisely. He concentrates on how to do the task, without worrying too much about the underlying theory. If there are multiple variations on how to do the task, he concentrates on just the one way his master teaches him.

Ha – At this point the student begins to branch out. With the basic practices working, he now starts to learn the technique’s underlying principles and theory. He also starts learning from other masters and integrates that learning into his practice.

Ri – Now the student isn’t learning from other people but from his own practice. He creates his own approaches and adapts what he’s learned to his own particular circumstances.

Wherever you may be in your Agile journey, keep firmly in mind that business agility – the ability to sense and adapt to change at the pace of the market – will give you the competitive edge.

To illustrate, let us see how Shu Ha Ri can positively change a common problem among Agile teams.

Imagine a co-located team which participates in the widely embraced Daily Stand Up (DSU) Agile ritual.

Nothing wrong with that, however, this team’s DSU often runs for 35+ minutes resulting in team members suggesting the frequency of the DSU should be reduced, thus saving time, and allowing them to ‘just do their work’.

How can Shu Ha Ri help here?

Shu: The team will change their DSU to follow a 3-question rule, where each person provides updates only on what they did yesterday, what they plan to do today, and if there are any blocking issues. Once the team has deliberately followed this practice and exhibited a level of proficiency at doing so, they will see marked improvements in the duration of the stand-up and its quality.

Ha: The team, pleased with the improvements they have made, are now encouraged to make it better. They start to loosen the language around answering the three questions and add the 4th statement of “I could use help with x today” when and where it is appropriate. This change will yield improvements in how the team collaborates on their stories, additionally reducing any spillover stories. This will continue for the foreseeable future as the team continues to experiment with various questions to augment or illuminate their current challenges.

Ri: The team finally moves away from the mechanistic structure of any deliberate questions to answer. Their DSU is more like a flow of information that all team members find useful. What was once a 35+ minute chore quickly evolved into a quick, concise, impactful, meeting that adapts easily to any situation the team is facing.

As a Scrum Master or Agile coach, make it your priority to quickly identify which stage of Shu Ha Ri your team sits, and then guide them accordingly so that they will progress to mastery. Expose new team members to concepts of Shu Ha Ri, and remain true the core Agile philosophies. Agile is not about recipes, steps, or processes. It is about working hard, doing what you are supposed to do and always trying to move to the next level.

Learn the basics and learn them well – without having the “muscle memory” of the basics it is far too easy to drift into bad habits and ineffective processes.

As Mr. Miyagi once said to Daniel Son – “Lesson Not Just Karate Only. Lesson For Whole Life! Whole Life Have A Balance, and Everything Be Better.” A perfect way to sum up Shu Ha Ri.