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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

The Fallacy of Shu-Ha-Ri

The Fallacy of Shu-Ha-Ri post image

Shu-Ha-Ri is frequently used as a good model that shows how we adopt new skills. The general idea is pretty simple. First, we just follow the rules. We don’t ask how the thing works, we just do the basic training. That’s Shu level.

Then we move to understanding what we are doing. Instead of simply following the rules we try to grasp why the stuff we’re doing works and why the bigger whole was structured the way it was. We still follow the rules though. That’s Ha level.

Finally, we get fluent with what we do and we also have deep understanding of it. We are ready to break the rules. Well, not for the sake of breaking them of course. We are, however, ready to interpret a lot of things and use our own judgement. It will sometimes tell us to go beyond the existing set constraints. And that’s Ri level.

I’ve heard that model being used often to advise people initially going with “by the book” approach. Here’s Scrum, Kanban or whatever. And here’s a book that ultimately tells you what to do. Just do it the way it tells you, OK?

Remember, you start at Shu and only later you’d be fluent enough to make your own tweaks.

OK, I do understand the rationale behind such attitude. I’ve seen enough teams that do cherry picking without really trying to understand the thing. Why all the parts were in the mechanism in the first place. What was the goal of introducing the method in the first place. On such occasions someone may want to go like “just do the whole damn thing the way the book tells you.”

It doesn’t solve a problem though.

In fact, the problem here is lack of understanding of a method or a practice a team is trying to adopt.

We don’t solve that problem by pushing solutions through people’s throats. The best we can do is to help them understand the method or the practice in a broader context.

It won’t happen on Shu level. It is actually the main goal of Ha level.

I would go as far to argue that, in our context, starting on a Shu level may simply be a waste of time. Shu-Ha-Ri model assumes that we are learning the right thing. This sounds dangerously close to stating that we can assume that a chosen method would definitely solve our problems. Note: we make such an assumption without really understanding the method. Isn’t it inconsistent?

Normally, the opposite is true. We need to understand a method to be able to even assess whether it is relevant in any given context. I think here of rather deep understanding. It doesn’t mean going through practices only. It means figuring out what principles are behind and, most importantly, which values need to be embraced to make the practices work.

Stephen Parry often says that processing the waste more effectively is cheaper, neater, faster waste. It is true for work items we build. It is true also for changes we introduce to the organization. A simple fact that we become more and more proficient with a specific practice or a method doesn’t automatically mean that the bottom line improves in any way.

That’s why Shu-Ha-Ri is misguiding. We need to start with understanding. Otherwise we are likely to end up with yet another cargo cult. We’d be simply copying practices because others do that. We’d be doing that even if they aren’t aligned with principles and values that our organization operates by.

We need to start at least on Ha level. Interestingly enough, it means that the whole Shu level is pretty much irrelevant. Given that there is understanding, people will fill the gaps in basic skills this way or the other.

What many people point is how prevalent Shu-Ha-Ri is in all sorts of areas: martial arts, cooking, etc. I’m not trying to say it is not applicable in all these contexts. We are in a different situation though. My point is that we haven’t decided that Karate is the way to go or we want to become a perfect sushi master. If the method was defined than I would unlikely object. But it isn’t.

Are there teams that can say that Scrum (or whatever else) is their thing before they really understand the deeper context? If there are then they can perfectly go through Shu-Ha-Ri and it will work great. I just don’t seem to meet such teams and organizations.

in: personal development

12 comments… add one

  • Lew Sauder March 27, 2015, 9:51 am

    I agree. It seems to me that learning the Shu level first tries to establish a practice as a “habit.” Then, when people are used to doing it a certain way, they can teach the other levels as more of a justification than a reasoning.

  • Ed Costello March 30, 2015, 5:14 pm

    Trying to pick a set of practices without understanding is clearly going to fail, but that doesn’t mean there is no value in the Shu-Ha-Ri analogy.

    It’s very common for members of a team to be at a different level of understanding when attempting to orientate around a particular flavour of agile. It’s possible (I would say likely) that a sub-set of the team with Ha or Ri level understanding has identified that a given set of practices would help with the problem the team is encountering, and convinced the team to give it a go.

    The Shu-Ha-Ri analogy here is useful in this situation, not to deny the other members of the team the context, but to emphasise the importance of following the practices, just for now, while they build that context. The goal should always be to get everyone to at least Ha level, so questioning and understanding should be encouraged. But it’s usually better to just start than wait for everyone to get to Ha level before giving it a go.

    So a team cannot have everyone start on Shu level, but individuals within a team can start at Shu level as a team transforms.

  • chandra sreeraman March 30, 2015, 6:47 pm

    I agree with Ed – he’s captured it much more succintly.
    OTOH it may also be an issue of personality, especially in the software space. I have seen a lot of developers wanting to know a practice thoroghly before they practice.

  • Pawel Brodzinski March 31, 2015, 2:30 am

    @Ed – I’m with you on that. I don’t say that everyone has to have thorough understanding of a method before giving it a go. What often I see however is that no one has enough understanding to even be able to say how applicable a method would be in their context.

    Let alone the understanding. There’s no will to understand either.

    What you end up with in such a scenario is just a cargo cult. I covered that in one of my presentations: http://www.infoq.com/presentations/mindset-context-methods

    My peeve with Shu-Ha-Ri is that it is, in fact, counterproductive in terms of choosing a proper method or set of practices. An input data to Shu-Ha-Ri is that we know what we want to learn.

    I want to learn boxing so I start with perfecting my punch. That’s good. However, our problem is more like, I want to defend myself. Boxing may be one strategy. Shooting another. Avoidance one more. Punching would be relevant only in a small subset of these.

    What we need is understanding principles and values behind methods, as well as organizational principles and values (real, not claimed). Shu-Ha-Ri doesn’t respond to that challenge well.

  • Peter April 3, 2015, 7:31 am

    Chip and Dan Heath documented clearly when adopting a complex new approach to a difficult problem, the success pattern is a) wanting to do it because it is potentially better (not just because everyone else is doing it), and b) mastering it before you change it, and the failure pattern what changing it before you understood it, much less mastered it.

    I have noticed a certain arrogance in the tone of some practitioners, “You’re just Shu, so do what you’re told.” This is silly and counter-productive.

    The objective is to learn fast. So you start by doing the new thing as close to the book as you can. Do it frequently. Ask (yourself) a lot of questions. Film, debrief, do it again and learn some more. Once you get good at it, then you can start trying out new things.

    BTW – the Heath brothers’ example was a new form of heart surgery. And surgeons are just as challenged with new ideas as the rest of us ;-)

  • Kurt April 7, 2015, 1:21 am

    Starting at Ha sounds nice. Why not just start at Ri? It isn’t that simple. The experiences that help us gain the level of understanding to work at the Ha level, are the experiences we carry out at the Shu level.

    Going straight to the Ha level could be possible via e.g. Knowledge transfer, but only explicit knowledge can be transferred that way, so knowledge of simple or complicated things. For complex things, that can only be understood via tacit knowledge, learned only through experience, the best we can hope for is speeding up the Shu stage.

    At least that is my first step when trying to understand something new. In most cases I wouldn’t even know what starting at the Ha stage would look like without at least conducting some Shu style rehearsal of the actions.

  • Ian Buchanan April 20, 2015, 2:58 pm

    We, software developers, seem to make a habit of taking a Japanese concept, stripping it of meaningful context, then realizing it doesn’t work for us. Could we not make similar fallacy arguments for kanban and kaizen?

    In the case of Shu-Ha-Ri, maybe the fallacy is that one can find Shu in a book. It seems to be the same reasoning by which “knowledge management” is only a wiki. Maybe those cargo cult Scrum teams will never advance because they don’t have a Grandmaster to teach them. Shu-Ha-Ri is not a guarantee. Many people practice karate or sushi without ever becoming masters.

    My sense of Shu-Ha-Ri is that it is empirical — an observation by Japanese masters about the stages of how their students learn. For martial arts, Shu-Ha-Ri isn’t a choice. I don’t think it’s a choice for software teams either. A team might not create any more value from practicing the strict forms of Scrum without deviation. You might not have a better meal for practicing the recipes in the Joy of Cooking without variation. That doesn’t mean Shu isn’t necessary for getting to Ha, where you can break with tradition, and then find ways to create more value or have a better meal.

    With all due respect (and as long-time lurker and first time poster, I really mean that), I think you’re begging the question. No team that has understanding of a deeper context would need Scrum. The problem is that you can’t know what tool will yield understanding of deeper context for a team. In my opinion, Scrum-by-the-book is a Wittgenstein’s ladder, “He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.” But, Scrum is a short book, so if you’re stuck, maybe you should get down and try a different ladder.

  • Pawel Brodzinski April 22, 2015, 10:13 am

    @Ian – I’d be with you if we assumed that we know that we want to do sushi / karate / Scrum / whatever. The thing is that in our context Scrum, or any other method for that matter, is not a mandatory step that we need to go through.

    Another argument I make here is that, probably unlike in martial arts or cooking, we may reach understanding without going through Shu. I posit that I understand Scrum even though I have never gone through Scrum Shu. I am happy to break the Scrum tradition and reuse the bits and pieces despite the fact that I never was an apprentice and never worked with a grandmaster.

  • Dominique August 30, 2015, 12:52 pm


    Just use it Shu Ha Ri
    Shu Learn, Ha Play with, Ri innovate. If you start with Ri, that you presume never learned anything, never framing, never doing anything.
    To control and succeed you need to know more than your competitor or find an cooperateur to help you make it fast.
    I like Agile, I like Scrum. But for me you use retrospective as a fast learning games, and Ha to implement and fail fast and Ri for improvement in real time.
    So the Shu Ha Ri model is stay actual. Without skills, without time to frame your learning no Start up…

  • Pawel Brodzinski August 31, 2015, 3:37 am

    @Dominique – I’m OK with learn, play with and innovate analogy. The question that remains unanswered is learn and play with what exactly? This is where the model falls short.

    Why do we assume that we should go with Scrum (or whatever else for that matter)? Unless we understand the tools their applicability in our own context is pretty much an unknown.

    That’s where I see the biggest difference between applying Shu-Ha-Ri in our context and in e.g. martial arts. In the latter case a specific tool, be it kung-fu, karate, or whatever else, is chosen and we operate in the context “how to learn this thing effectively and efficiently.” Ultimately the goal is not to fight best but to learn a specific thing.

    I would propose that if the goal was to fight the best one should understand different combat techniques as well as their own environment to be able to pick the right path. It might be learning how to shoot, hand-to-hand combat, or maybe managing an army.

    Without understanding both the tools and the environment there’s no answer for that question.

  • Jerry Sobotka May 1, 2017, 10:31 am

    I suspect that the most important aspect of Shu is discipline, and not the simple rote repetition of a single tool/technique/concept. I have never met, in my 58 years, any person whose first attempt of any task was successful. By that I mean, I have never seen an instance where someone began any adventure at an advanced level and understood why their actions were successful in that set of circumstances. Shu, to me, is the phase of learning where mistakes are expected, needed to be more precise, to ensure learning actually happens.

    Even in the arena of martial arts, the learner has a high level concept of why. So do new developers, testers, Scrum Masters….. They know that the purpose is to create something of value. But what is value and how many attempts does it take to learn what is of real value.

    Please do not remove from any of our colleagues the time to learn the basics. As we learn the basics, we also learn their limitations, which allow us to learn more.

    IOWs, please do not insist that we eat batter and imagine it to be cake.

  • jen sutherland July 9, 2017, 11:49 pm

    I’m with @EdCostello – there are 2 sides to the situation. When deciding on a framework/methodology/approach (self defence strategy) to follow/use, we need to understand:
    1) the problem to be solved
    2) experience (at at least Ha level) in various potential approaches (boxing, shooting, running away)
    Only then can we effectively select the right approach for our problem, in our context and culture. More often than not, a combination of frameworks is ideal. The problem is that the person/team deciding on the framework are often experts (Ri, maybe) on only one or two approaches. Likewise, when executives or senior leadership are trying to change the company’s approach to problem solving/value delivery, they either rely on these internal experts to guide them or they take the word of the consulting firm du jour with the shiniest, trendiest approach (and if they have a foreign accent, all the better).
    BUT, assuming you have properly selected the right approach based on your problem and context, then a Shu Ha Ri approach to getting people up to speed is relevant. There is still a bit of a dilemma – you want people to challenge and adapt what they do (Ha) but to do that, they first need to *do* (at Shu level). In order to do, they need to have some initial knowledge/theory.
    Having said that, the “people” still need to understand the why before they will commit to doing any of this in any order! As Simon Sinek says “Start with WHY.”

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