I attended an interesting session at Agile 2011 this year, about applying Shu Ha Ri at the leadership level. The talk was given by Bob Galen and talked about how it can be useful to take a look at an organization’s leaders, assess where they are in terms of Agile maturity, and consider this information when looking at implementing agile processes, or later to see how parts of the organization are performing.
Shu Ha Ri is a martial arts concepts, used to describe the stages of learning to mastery. It translates roughly to ‘Learn, Detatch, Transcend’. Basically, when practicing to mastery, you first learn techniques (or kata in martial arts) by the book, until you have that down. Then you are able to break from tradition, introducing your own alterations to the traditional techniques, in a way that still works. Finally, once you have mastered that level, you are able to completely transcend, perhaps breaking new ground, able to teach others to mastery.
Applying this to Agile, Shu Ha Ri can be used to describe how teams learn to use agile processes, and how coaches master the ability to teach others to use agile. First, we teach teams by the book. Once they master that level, they can introduce alternatives to their process, in ways that still work, because at the level of mastery they have obtained in ‘Shu’, they understand the underlying principles and ‘why’ we do what we do. When they have obtained the ability to think about what is truly working for them and what isn’t, and making tweaks to their process in a way that still embodies agile values, they have moved on to ‘Ha’.
Finally, once a person or team has mastered ‘Ha’, and becomes expert enough to consciously use the agile values framework in decision making, and perhaps has the ability to coach and teach others, they will have moved into ‘Ri’.
Bob Galen’s talk suggested that it could be valuable to see where your organization’s leaders are on the Shu Ha Ri spectrum, since it can be useful to have at least one ‘Ri’ in every group. With my current company, the Product Development organization functions basically as one unit, under the direction of one Director of Engineering and one VP, and we have several people at the high ‘Ha’ and ‘Ri’ levels. But in my last company, which had several major development groups each led by a different VP, with several Directors under each, I think it would have been useful to ensure we had one ‘Ri’ in each VP’s group to mentor the group in agile practices.
For those who are interested, here is a link to Bob’s presentation from the conference: SHU-HA-RI Applied to Agile Leadership.
I myself consider my own level to be somewhere between ‘Ha’ and ‘Ri’. I am able to modify the process to suit the situation while still adhering to agile principles and not ignoring the tough bits. I am also able to teach others. But I feel I still have a journey in front of me of teaching others and deepening my experience to the point where I feel comfortable calling myself a ‘Ri’. It’s good to have a goal!