Thursday 11 February 2010

Shu-Ha-Ri not harmful... it's misunderstood and mis-applied.

Rachel Davies, for whom I have incredible respect, posted this post called "Shu-Ha-Ri considered harmful". In it she points out that the basic notion of Shu-Ha-Ri from Aikido of graduated styles of learning - the novice, the advanced student, the master should learn in different ways, the novice learning more by rote, and more importantly, from a single master, the advanced student trying the techniques in varying ways and comparing styles, then the master innovating new combinations and techniques. Cockburn, often cited in the Agile community somewhat gets this, but his adaptation varies from this concept just a bit.

Rachel has an important critique, which I accept. She points out that agile boot-camps and other styles of training for organizations and groups and teams in Agile practices often cite Shu-Ha-Ri, and require that teams do "just the scrum by the book" (or whichever method is to be used), at least initially. Then, as they master these techniques as they are put forth, they can adapt. She, however, sees a disrespect for the unique circumstance of the student in this. In her words, "I'm uncomfortable with approaches that force students to follow agile practices without questioning." I agree. But this is not what Shu-Ha-Ri implies. Shu should always include questioning... but the student should test the technique as presented, and part of the discovery is finding out its limits - how it works, and how it does not. But it's an experiment. It requires a control... and the control is the basic form, attempted as instructed, to get a baseline. Teaching any technique, physical or mental has a similarity in that respect. Is the metaphor limited - yes, and I argue that it is the agile-boot-camp folks who often mis-apply the martial arts concept.

I understand the concern she raises, especially the respect for context and unique character of the teams and the flexible nature of knowledge work... but this betrays a misunderstanding, or mis-application of Shu-Ha-Ri. Shu doesn't imply that the students are fungible. Technique is still taught in the context of the student (team). Sutherland has it wrong when he days "only when you have mastered the basic practices are you allowed to improvise." In Aikido, the students who are in a "Shu" mode are not improvising with "different" techniques, but they are applying them in different situations, and seeing how they fit. One adapts HOW to do the technique for a tall person, for a short person, a heavy person, and advanced Aikidoka, an unranked novice, etc. Likewise with Scrum, you apply the technique, but the coach helps the team use the technique in context. That's Shu. Ha then is where a team combines the techniques in unique ways. They may remove a practice, or replace it and see how that fits. Ri (mastery), they are inventing new techniques, or altering the basic forms in different ways. This is all quite reasonable, even in an agile coaching context.

In Aikido, especially, students practice the techniques in multiple contexts, so they can get a sense of the suppleness. Students are asked not to innovate initially, nor combine techniques before they have at least mastered the basic technique itself - so they're not thinking through each step of a move while they're doing it - they "get" it. They they can move closer to innovation.

Rachel's post, while understandably compassionate, confuses two separate things... models of instruction, training, and practice with notions of respect, oppression, and dominance. Telling a student to try the basic move and get it better before expanding isn't disrespectful, it's understanding the learning models of the student. In practice, it is quite possible for a student to grok the technique more quickly, and if Sensei observes this, he will show the student something slightly more advanced, and have him practice this. Or, Sensei may see the student struggling to apply the move, and may change the context to let the student appreciate what's happening. The point of Shu-Ha-Ri is, as Rachel points out, to ensure that one doesn't miss the basics while playing with the innovative and the expansive. If it's being used to hold a student back, or somehow contains a disrespect for the student - that's a failing of the teacher (coach). Student-sensei relationships are adaptive to the needs of the student, else they become a mere posture of dominance and submission, without the deeper communication that's supposed to occur within a relationship of trust.

I feel Rachel is (unintentionally and understandably) mischaracterizing Aikido and Shu-Ha-Ri based on mis-perceptions prevalent in the community on how its concepts can be applied. Aikido is taught in many forms, but Agile is not looser, nor is Aikido tighter a discipline. Aikido is, in any good Dojo, taught with great sensitivity to the needs, the capacities and readiness of the student. It is taught to groups, individually - that is to say, it is demonstrated to the group, then practiced in pairs, with Sensei observing, correcting... coaching. If anything, rolling Agile out in a large organization, and taking large groups through paces in boot-camps which do one-size-fits-all is UNLIKE Aikido training.

Bootcamps fail to do Shu-Ha-Ri if they insist that all steps of Shu are learned at equal pace by all learners. This is not Shu-Ha-Ri being harmful - this is Shu-Ha-Ri being ignored.


Anonymous said...


Thanks for this sensible response to my blog. I did not mean to sound critical of Shu-Ha-Ri as a sensitive way to teach Aikido. I also appreciate that there are different learning levels.

My concern is that the Shu-Ha-Ri model is being (mis)used to justify teaching software development teams to adopt practices without question. I agree with what you say, this is UNLIKE Aikido training.

Aikido is much older than software development and has moves that have evolved over many years. In Aikido there are physical skills to learn. Whereas, what is taught as agile involves a wide range of thinking and communication skills.

I would say that many techniques within agile software development have not yet reached the maturity for Shu-Ha-Ri to be applied in the same way as to Aikido. So talking about Shu-Ha-Ri for agile software development is potentially misleading.

Unknown said...

This is fair... and I didn't take anything as an insult to my preferred art, to be sure. And you may be right about the age and solidity of the practices... but I do think that the approach applies, even beyond the physical. I regularly apply the principles at play here to mental practices, and in fact, the Ki parts of Aikido (for those styles which emphasize them) are taught this way as well, including the mental discipline.

I think what's happened, frankly, is that a complex and subtle training model is being rigidly applied in the coaching community... because it's, frankly, a fad. People who have never stepped into the Dojo bandy this stuff about as if they understand, and while it's ok, in that it IS a reasonable metaphor for graduated learning, it can be extended past its value, and applied like a hammer.

Having said that... a common thing I've seen in organizations which fail to implement agile is that they don't pick a style, get reasonably competent at it, then vary. They pick and choose, but don't have the actual sophistication to know what to choose, or why to choose a given practice, alter it, or reject it. I think Shu-Ha-Ri is often cited as a way to sum-up this problem, and as a means to counter it. It can have value there, but if it's rigid, or one-size-fits-all, then it will fail.

Dave said...

George Box is often quoted (paraphrased) as saying, "All models are wrong, but some are useful."

Shu-Ha-Ri in the context of agile adoption is a model. I think it's a pretty useful one.

Another model I think is unwrong enough to be useful in the same context is a quote from jazz trumpeter Terry Clark: "Imitate, assimilate, innovate."

A jazz student first learning to improvise will imitate the greats of the past. In the process, he/she will assimilate the inner message, and begin to express individual music. A few, eventually, maybe, will innovate - take the art form to the next level.

To me, this is very similar to the Shu-Ha-Ri model. In some ways it might be easier to apply to agile adoption. It doesn't seem to imply that beginners have to do anything by rote. Instead, it implies they can learn efficiently by example.

Unknown said...

That's a great model, Dave. But I think you're perpetuating the misunderstanding about Shu-Ha-Ri. Most of the concept doesn't have to do with rote or not rote... the dojo itself determines the mode of learning... the point is to be only learning one system from one style of teacher until you have basic mastery.

This is more equivalent to, say, trying Scrum first, or Crystal, not Scrum/Crystal. The point is consistency, not rote. Most learning in Aikido IS experiential immitation... that's precisely the model. It's not bare rote... Sensei demonstrates, everyone breaks into pairs and tries it on each other while Sensei hovers and corrects. Then everyone switches pairs. It's more like Arlo's promiscuous pairing than rote boot camp.


Dave said...

I didn't mean that Shu-Ha-Ri itself was about rote learning. I was reinforcing your point that the model is ofen not used properly in the context of agile adoption.

Mr.Now said...

Thank you for this excellent blog post. You take a nuanced subject and nicely demystify it. Well written, well reasoned. Thanks