Beginning an Agile Transformation at Your Organization: Shu-Ha-Ri?

I attended the Agile Open Florida event in St. Petersburg Florida and the attendees’ organizations there seemed to be split into three camps:

  1. Some teams within the organization practicing Agile and the other teams practicing Waterfall.
  2. Organization just announced or beginning transformation to Agile (2-6 months into it).
  3. Organization been practicing Agile for a year or more (at different levels of maturity).

My perception was that the majority of the attendees’ organizations fell into Group 2 and I would like to expose them and others interested to the teachings of Shu-Ha-Ri and the question of its adoption.

Shu-Ha-Ri is a Japanese martial art concept where the term translates roughly to “first learn, then detach and finally transcend”.  The definition pulled from Wikipedia follows:

It is known that, when we learn or train in something, we pass through the stages of shu, ha, and ri. These stages are explained as follows. In shu, we repeat the forms and discipline ourselves so that our bodies absorb the forms that our forebears created. We remain faithful to these forms with no deviation. Next, in the stage of ha, once we have disciplined ourselves to acquire the forms and movements, we make innovations. In this process the forms may be broken and discarded. Finally, in ri, we completely depart from the forms, open the door to creative technique, and arrive in a place where we act in accordance with what our heart/mind desires, unhindered while not overstepping laws.”

There are some Agilists that believe organizations should practice Shu-Ha-Ri during their Agile adoption and there are others that feel the practice places a damper on the self-organization and empowerment of the teams.  We could debate it theoretically (the scientist’s perspective), but given the audience I am addressing, I prefer to discuss the actions needed to implement Agile within their world (the engineer’s perspective).

If your organization is just beginning its Agile journey, it would behoove you to select established practice(s) and adhere to their guidelines, whether it be Scrum, Kanban, etc.  Teams should self-organize and be self-governing, but I have seen organizations fail because they do not have the sufficient knowledge to implement the practice.  They make too many changes to the established practice too early or are further handicapped because their organization dictates variations from the start.

The best action is to acquire an experienced coach or consultancy to lead you through your transformation. If you cannot do that then learn the Agile practice(s) you have chosen and try not to deviate unless you feel you have the Agile knowledge and process maturity to do so.  It’s important to follow the practice of Shu-Ha-Ri in inverse proportion to the level of Agile knowledge and experience your organization can draw from. In other words, the less coaching and knowledge available to you the more you should lean on the practice of Shu-Ha-Ri.

It is easy for an organization’s teams to fall prey to deviating from a practice too early.  In most instances, newly assembled teams lack the knowledge and maturity in Agile values (ex: transparency). The theoretical argument might be to let the team change what they want from the very beginning because they will ultimately learn and adapt.  The lessons they learn from the experience will make them a superior team and enable them to become a better empowered and self-governed team.  Theoretically, I would agree with this, but the real world can be harsh.  Your poor decisions have a cost and I do not find the world or many organizations to be overly patient.

So, if you want to succeed on your Agile journey, the best course of action is to have a coach that’s been there before.  If you can’t do that then I wouldn’t stray from the fundamental teachings too much, especially before your Agile acumen is grown. If you are forced with early decisions, then your first step should be to refer to the 12 Agile Principles.  I find more times than not that they set the right direction.

 

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5 comments

  1. Yes! Just like in The Karate Kid … “Wax on. Wax off. Wax on. Wax off.” Also, this is discussed in great detail in Chapter 4 of Lyssa Adkins book “Coaching Agile Teams” which I highly recommend.

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