Shu Ha Ri’s concept can help teams approach Agile adoption in a structured and deliberate way and balance the need for consistency and flexibility as they learn and grow.
I recently had a chat with a friend who is a really good agile coach. During the conversation, he argued that it was more important to “be agile” than to “do agile”. I should note we were talking about following a framework, specifically SAFe. While I’m not a fan of SAFe, I believe it’s important for teams to start with a framework and only throw it away when they have reached a decent level of mastery.
The Agile Manifesto has given us a great set of principles: the “what”. However, it doesn’t dive into the “how”. Unfortunately, I have witnessed teams who try to figure out the “how” alone often fail. This can often lead to Agile getting a bad name and even being abandoned.
I have seen a lot of hate toward frameworks recently, and while some are bad and don’t align with the principles, some are very good. I recommend that any organisation adopting agile should start with a framework and evolve as maturity grows. Shu Ha Ri is a great mental model for this journey.
What is Shu Ha Ri?
Shu Ha Ri is a Japanese martial arts concept that describes the stages of learning. The three stages are:
Shu: In this stage, the student follows the teachings of the master without deviation. The goal is to learn the fundamentals and acquire basic skills.
Ha: In this stage, the student begins to break free from the rigid structure of the teachings and starts to explore their style and interpretations.
Ri: In this final stage, the student has internalised the teachings and can freely apply them in any situation. They have become a master in their own right.
Shu Ha Ri is often used as a metaphor for the learning process in various fields, not just martial arts. It emphasises the importance of mastering the basics before moving on to more advanced concepts, balancing following established teachings, and developing one’s style.
How can Shu Ha Ri be applied to Agile adoption?
Shu Ha Ri can be applied to Agile adoption in several ways. The Shu stage would be the initial adoption of the Agile framework, where the team follows the established practices and principles without deviation. The goal at this stage is to learn the basics of Agile and develop a solid foundation of skills and knowledge.
The Ha stage would explore and adapt the Agile framework to the team’s specific needs and goals. This might involve modifying certain practices or adopting additional tools and techniques. The goal at this stage is to find the team’s unique way of working with Agile.
The Ri stage would be the mastery of Agile, where the team has internalised the principles and can apply them flexibly and effectively. At this stage, the team should be able to adapt to changing requirements and circumstances and continuously improve their Agile processes.
Why should teams avoid jumping straight to the Ri stage?
It is generally not recommended for teams to jump straight to the Ri stage of Shu Ha Ri because it is necessary first to develop a strong foundation of knowledge and skills. If a team tries to move too quickly to the Ri stage, they may overlook important details or make mistakes that could have been avoided with a more systematic approach.
In the case of Agile adoption, skipping the Shu and Ha stages could lead to a lack of understanding and buy-in from team members and poor implementation of the Agile framework. This can result in suboptimal performance and frustration and may lead to the team abandoning the Agile approach altogether.
In general, it is crucial to take the time to understand and internalise the principles and practices of Agile fully and to adapt them to the team’s specific needs and goals. This will ensure that the team can make the most of the Agile framework and achieve the desired benefits.
How does this affect the argument of being agile vs doing agile?
The concept of Shu Ha Ri can be seen as supporting the idea that it is more important to “do Agile” rather than “be agile”. In other words, the emphasis should be on implementing the Agile framework and practices in a consistent and effective way rather than just declaring that the team is “agile” and hoping for the best.
Overall, the concept of Shu Ha Ri emphasises the importance of taking a systematic and deliberate approach to Agile adoption rather than just trying to “be agile” without a solid foundation of knowledge and skills. This can help teams to fully realise the benefits of Agile and achieve their desired outcomes.
Can Agile Coaches accelerate Shu Ha Ri?
Yes, Agile Coaches can help teams to accelerate their progress through the stages of Shu Ha Ri. An Agile Coach is a professional who has expertise in the Agile framework and can provide guidance, support, and mentorship to teams that are adopting Agile.
In the Shu stage, an Agile Coach can help the team to understand the principles and practices of Agile and to develop the skills and knowledge needed to use the framework effectively. This might involve providing training, facilitating workshops, and helping the team to establish effective Agile processes.
In the Ha stage, an Agile Coach can help the team to explore and experiment with different ways of working with Agile and to adapt the framework to their specific needs and goals. This might involve coaching the team on modifying certain practices or introducing new tools and techniques.
In the Ri stage, an Agile Coach can help the team improve and evolve their Agile processes and adapt to changing requirements and circumstances. This might involve providing ongoing support and mentorship and helping the team identify and overcome any challenges they may be facing.
Overall, an Agile Coach can provide valuable expertise and guidance to teams at all stages of Shu Ha Ri and can help them to accelerate their progress and achieve their desired outcomes.
What are the dangers of not being flexible with Agile frameworks?
There are several dangers of not being flexible with Agile frameworks. Some of these might include the following:
- Lack of adaptability: A team must be flexible with its Agile framework to adapt to changing requirements and circumstances. This can result in suboptimal performance and may even lead to project failure.
- Poor engagement and commitment: A team must be flexible with their Agile framework to ensure team members stay engaged and interested in the project. This can lead to a lack of buy-in and commitment and ultimately result in poor performance.
- Inflexible processes: If a team is not flexible with their Agile framework, they may become overly focused on following the framework to the letter without considering the actual needs and goals of the project. This can lead to strict processes that cannot adapt to changing circumstances.
- Loss of competitive advantage: A team must be flexible with its Agile framework to keep up with the pace of change in its industry. This can result in a loss of competitive advantage and may even lead to the team losing market share to more agile competitors.
Overall, teams need to strike a balance between following the established practices and principles of Agile and being flexible and adaptable enough to meet the changing needs of the project and the business. This will ensure that the team can fully realise the benefits of Agile and achieve their desired outcomes.
What are the exceptions?
In scenarios where most of the team has individual knowledge of agile and a seasoned Agile Coach supports you, it may be possible to ignore the Shu and the Ha stages.
In this article, I have shared my thoughts about using Shu Ha Ri to improve your agile transformation. I have stressed why it’s important to learn the basics first, but I also raised the challenge of being inflexible. Remember, you cant become a black belt in Jiu-Jitsu without first understanding the basic steps. As with many things in software development, there is no straight answer. Agile coaches can accelerate the journey to mastery, but it’s essential to go through the motions. I have worked with many great Agile coaches who insist on jumping straight to the end state - as enticing as this is, I would exercise caution.