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The Agile Mindset - Shu Ha Ri
The status of "master" can only be earned. It cannot be claimed.
(This article is part of an on-going series dedicated to developing Agile mastery. Each post offers value to students on this journey, however, there is an advantage to those who start at the beginning.)
Out here where the West still lives we have an expression for pretenders and posers: "All hat and no cattle." Dudes and dudettes wearing patent leather cowboy boots and driving shiny pickup trucks. An external scaffolding bought and installed to support an internal projection of wishful thinking and brittle beliefs. Every state, city, and town has their version of this expression.
Don't be one of those people.
If you're a newly minted scrum master or product owner, then congratulations. You've got the hat, and a mighty fine hat it is. Now it's time to get some cattle, earn some sweat stains on your hat brim, and muddy up them shiny boots. It's a process earning the markers for experience and wisdom. An iterative process, of course. No one-and-done about it. In the Agile world, a favorite burgee for this process is "shu ha ri."
Agile trainers and coaches lifted the Japanese phrase "shu ha ri" from Aikido. The phrase, essentially, describes the apprentice path toward mastery. "Ri" is where masters live. "Ha" is the lengthy apprentice or junior phase. "Shu" is where everyone starts. This is where most Agilists are. This is also where most Agilists think they aren't. Unlike the process for mastering a martial art - where actual sweat and bruises are involved - it's common for Agilists to jump past "shu" and "ha" and position themselves as having achieved "ri." This behavior isn't helped by the unfortunate side effects of "scrum master" as a title. Scrum masters may well have mastered the scrum information, but that's not saying much. Early in their careers they typically aren't very good Agilists or system thinkers.
"Shu" is where everyone starts. This is where most Agilists are. This is also where most Agilists think they aren't.
To be fair, jumping to "ri" is rarely intentional. It's just an easy mistake to make without the kind external and kinetic feedback found in martial arts training. The diligent Agilist who truly seeks mastery will have to seek out the kind of feedback that builds mastery. The dedicated bucket work required to master a physical skill is often unpleasant, but if your practice is deliberate and strategic, the rewards are significant and permanent. The same is true for less physical skills, such as product ownership and scrum mastering. Learn to love the work. I've written about this in The Hidden Lives of Scrum Masters.
The story version of shu ha ri is as follows:
New students wear a white belt and are told it is bad luck to wash their belt. The more they practice, the dirtier it gets until the belt is brown. As they continue to practice, their hard work is reflected in a belt that has become so weathered by practice it is black. Still, the student practices and their belt begins to fray at the edges, revealing the white threads within. Even at the rank of black belt, the master knows there is much more to learn. There will be times when he or she is again a student learning from a master.
After finishing a few days training for scrum master or product owner, the certificate you receive is your white belt. You know more than you did a week ago. You also know enough to recognize you can't go back to managing teams or products the way you may have in the past. But you lack the experience, the sweat and bruises, that can only be learned by applying the basics in your particular work environment and circumstances.
There are two processes involved with achieving mastery in just about any endeavor, including the development of an Agile mindset.
The path to mastering domain knowledge.
The path to mastering yourself.
The conundrum is that they move independently and in different directions. Knowing more and more about the increasing variety of Agile practices and tools doesn't automatically confer wisdom in how to use the principles and practices appropriately and wisely. Having greater and greater insight into your own strengths and weakness doesn’t guarantee you'll select the right course of action or apply the optimal solution to any given situation.
Mastering domain knowledge can be thought of as an outside-in process.
Reading books and participating in publicly offered training helps us build the necessary foundations to basic domain knowledge. If we're just starting to learn a musical instrument or a second language, for example, here is were we learn about music fundamentals and basic grammar. For Agile, the outer layer consists of Agile 101 level training where we learn basic terms, the principles, and core processes, such as scrum and Kanban.
As we build out the outside layer (Shu) to the Agile domain knowledge, we'll begin to encounter more and more novel situations that challenge what we know and send us back into the world to search for different or better answers. A sign of moving into the apprentice phase of your Agile mastery (Ha) is that this begins to occur more and more frequently. What you need can no longer be found in books, articles, and training. It's at this point in your journey when seeking a guide or coach is the better choice. As the depth of your experience increases and you are able to draw on a wider range of possible solutions, you'll begin moving from Ha into Ri. This is a gradual process and occurs without much fanfare until you realize - usually signaled by the behaviors of those around you - there is a certain effortlessness to your ability to read situations, adapt, and apply effective solutions.
Mastering yourself can be thought of as an inside-out process.
We are born as white belts. Gifted an invitation to learn and improve, limited only by our ambition, determination, and perseverance. The domain knowledge available to us is vast. So much so, the entire corpus of Agile knowledge is but a pamphlet when compared to the near limitless knowledge we can learn about ourselves. This is the longer journey, the endless journey, the far more rewarding and satisfying journey. The more you know about yourself - your beliefs and how you acquired them, your values and how they do or don't change, your strengths, your limitations, and hundreds of other character attributes - the more effective you'll be at showing up as a compassionate and capable Agilist. This is where the magic happens, when mastery of domain knowledge meets self mastery.
There is no pre-packaged training to take or books that can be referenced to get you to this point. No easy answers. What you can do...actually, must do is seek out mentors and coaches with whom you can meet one-to-one and sort out specific issues with yourself and with your circumstances. This is what all the good coaches and guides I know have done. This is what I did and continue to do. There isn't a day that goes by when I don't glance at my black belt and notice the white threads showing through.
The length of time you'll wear a white or brown belt is inversely related to the amount of effort and degree of open-mindedness you bring to the journey. You will be tested. Will you react or will you respond? It's your choice. I hope you choose wisely.
If you have any questions, need anything clarified, or have something else on your mind, please use the comments section or email me directly.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Small Announcement: A significant update to the home website for The Stoic Agilist went live this week. Lots of under-the-hood work to support my plans for this year.