Shu Ha Ri


I spend several hours every week running – on purpose. I don’t run very fast, which means when I have the occasional fall because my mind wanders, I inflict very little damage to the ground. This is a preamble to letting you know that I have lots of time to think when I run (which is the reason the ground occasionally gets in my way). Recently I have been thinking about just how rigorously practitioners need to follow processes, methods, and frameworks and when it makes sense to tweak processes to fit the culture.

Years ago, I heard Alistair Cockburn talk about the concept of Shu Ha Ri. Shu Ha Ri is a martial arts concept that defines the continuum that learners follow as they transition from the status of beginner to master. The continuum of learning identifies how a learner’s thought process and decision-making ability changes as they gain greater knowledge. The stages of Shu Ha Ri are:

Shu – The learner learns the basics and follows the process explicitly. Shu is often defined as obey.

Ha – The learner learns to break with the rules and traditions by testing the boundaries established when they began their journey. At this level, the learner is testing their boundaries before declaring a new revelation or rule.

Ri – The final step is that of transcendence, the learner defines new knowledge and rules that influence others. They become the master.

To ingrain change, teams need to progress through each level or they risk failure.

When an organization or team begins a transformation, there is a temptation for both practitioners and consultants to jump quickly from the learner step to either breaking or making new rules. Learners need to build a behavioral base to provide a stable base for a team or organization to soar to new heights. Scaling to the summit of any mountain feels exhilarating for everyone involved and is often celebrated, even if the base learning is insecure. However, no ascent to the level of being a master is without trails (plural on purpose). For teams and organizations without the muscle memory of the processes, technique, concepts, and values ingrained as learner, failure is often inevitable. For example, I have seen organizations jump from CMMI maturity level one to maturity levels three or four in one step. But as soon as the appraisal is over and they run into a tough issue they find it easier to revert to old behaviors than to hold on to the new processes and guidelines. The same issue occurs in agile transformations when organizations adopt techniques without learning and adopting an agile mindset.

This is not just a problem suffered by practitioners as they get excited and strive to greater heights. Consultants and advisors often try to hasten the adoption process, much like de-greening an apple or banana, based on both contractual and organizational constraints. Everyone falls prey to the perceived need to push the boundary and comfort zone too quickly.

The concept of Shu, Ha, Ri represents a continuum of learning. In martial arts or any physically demonstrable activity, practitioners must learn and practice before they can take the next step forward. Carol Dweck in her book Mindset, postulated that even the most gifted athletes need an open mindset to succeed in the long run. To progress across the continuum of learning everyone needs to put in the work. I suspect that for many, the Shu state is the hardest to accept because we all want to believe we are special and we are all impatient to attain the prize of mastery.

Picture via Wikimedia