Shu ha ri—three stages towards agile maturity

“Scrum has its roots in Japanese thought and practice”, Jeff Sutherland, the co-creator of Scrum, tells us in his book Scrum: the art of doing twice the work in half the time (Random House, 2014), p.38.

One of the ideas that Scrum has drawn on is the Japanese martial art concept of shu ha ri (or shuhari) which outlines three stages of learning towards mastery.

Over the last few years, I have found this a really useful model to bear in mind when working with teams as they embrace and grow towards agility.


The first stage of mastering something is shu (守), which roughly translates into English as ‘protect’, ‘obey’, ‘observe’.

In this state, the student learns the rules, forms and patterns of the discipline. The rules are followed and not deviated from. They are repeated and absorbed.

In the film, The Karate Kid (1984), Mr Miyagi sets Daniel to do menial tasks like painting the fence and waxing the car (“wax on, wax off”). Daniel feels frustrated, he wants to get on and learn karate not do chores; he feels that Mr Miyagi is simply using him as a slave. But this is the shu state: learning the basic patterns, feeling the rhythm, learning muscle memory.

For teams learning Scrum and agility the shu state can be experienced when teams learn the rhythm of the events (sprints, daily scrums, backlog refinement meetings, sprint review and retrospective), learning to use the backlog and writing user stories.


The next state is ha (破), which roughly translates as ‘detatch’, ‘digress’, ‘broken’. Once you have mastered the forms, you can begin to break them and make innovations.

When I was learning Hebrew at university, I would first write the Hebrew characters exactly as I had been taught, almost printing them. In my second year, the characters were familiar. I could write them without thinking and having read more Hebrew and looked at more font faces, I began to adapt a few of the characters to make them my own.

For teams learning Scrum and agility this state of ha can be found in perhaps adapting the daily stand-up meeting to not slavishly follow the three question format (What did I do yesterday? What will I do today? Are there any impediments?), or exploring news ways to run a retrospective to ge the best out of the team.


The final state in the road to mastery is ri (離), which roughly translates as ‘leave’, ‘separate’, ‘depart’.

In this state you now embody the discipline. It is so embedded within you, you can stop clinging to the initial forms and be creative in an unhindered way doing everything in the spirit of your discipline without awkwardly trying to recreate the exact patterns and forms.

Consider the guitarist who has so mastered their instrument they are longer constrained to playing fixed mode and scale patterns; they now traverse the fretboard fluidly, playing the full length of the instrument, switching scales at will and sometimes going outwith the scales to express themselves.

For Scrum teams being in a state of ri might mean that they stop estimating stories because they now instinctively create small-enough stories that will be delivered to production within a day or two. Or their daily scrums become gatherings that adapt to the needs of the team, with on-the-spot analysis towards shippability and where corrective action is taken.

A familiar model

This model is probably familiar to many. Learning anything takes discipline. At the start you ‘obey’ (shu) your coach’s instructions. Once you understand why you are doing it you begin to ‘detatch’ (ha) and adapt. And finally, after further practice you can ‘leave’ (ri) those early practices behind, fully make the discipline your own and coach others.

“Scrum is a lot like that,” writes Jeff Sutherland. “It requires practice and attention, but also a continuous effort to reach a new state—a state where things just flow and happen.”

What I really like about this model is that it encourages teams to slow down and focus on the basics. In such a fast-paced world, it’s refreshing to be encouraged to slow down and go deep. It’s okay to be where you are in terms of your agile maturity. Embrace it and strive to be better.

No shortcuts

Why are the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team so good? Because they have focused on the basics, have embodied the fundamentals, and they understand why these disciplines are important.

My friend Steve teaches bass guitar. When new pupils tell him that they want to be able to play fast, he simply replies, “Playing fast is just playing slow speeded-up.” Learn the basics, get your technique right, learn the positions, learn the scales. Then take it to the next stage.

You can’t take shortcuts. I’ve seen teams new to agile decide early on that they’d like to abandon user story estimates because “that’s what some of the best agile teams do”. But they’ve only done that because of their experience. They understand why they are not using estimates because they have embodied the disciplines that now make estimates unnecessary. That only comes through discipline, practice and experience.

Situational leadership

The kind of input a team needs from their scrum master will to some extent depend on where a team is on this shu ha ri spectrum.

Mike Cohn has a really helpful (and free) 15-page paper called Situational Scrum Mastering that explores this and offers a helpful model. If you are interested, it’s well worth a read.

Where is your team?

If you’re working with an agile team, where is your team on this journey, shu, ha or ri?

Do you need to take more time to focus on the foundations, replay the patterns and rehearse the basics? Or is it time to innovate and push the boundaries of what you’ve learned to find more agile ways of working.

Originally published on my work’s internal blog.

Photo by Thao Le Hoang on Unsplash

Published by

Gareth Saunders

I’m Gareth J M Saunders, 52 years old, 6′ 4″, father of 3 boys (including twins). Enneagram type FOUR and introvert (INFP), I am a non-stipendiary priest in the Scottish Episcopal Church, I sing with the NYCGB alumni choir, play guitar, play mahjong, write, draw and laugh… Scrum master at Safeguard Global; latterly at Sky and Vision/Cegedim. Former web architect and agile project manager at the University of St Andrews and previously warden at Agnes Blackadder Hall.

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