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

An overview of my planning and productivity system in 2019

Google Calendar, Microsoft OneNote and Todoist

My personal organisation system has evolved over the years in an iterative rather agile approach.

This post outlines the major building blocks of my current system.

Continue reading An overview of my planning and productivity system in 2019

My paperless(-ish) office with OneNote and NAPS2

Screenshot of NAPS2 application. Two documents have been scanned and are shown side-by-side.
Screenshot of NAPS2, the scan to PDF application I use alongside OneNote

I’ve started using NAPS2 to convert paper documents to PDF to store in Dropbox or Microsoft OneNote as part of my paperless(-ish) office approach to productivity.

Predictions about the paperless office have been circulating for over 40 years now. And yet here I am in 2018 sitting next to a four-drawer filing cabinet containing letters and documents about everything from my house rental and utility bills to health records, university qualifications, and work-related documents.

Continue reading My paperless(-ish) office with OneNote and NAPS2

Lean Agile Edinburgh meetup at Royal London, March 2018

You can watch the recording of the live stream above.

  • 14:33 Introductions
  • 18:45 Welcome from Royal London (hosts)
  • 23:50 Kathy Thomson—Explain and explore
  • 42:00 Krish Bissonauth—CIA model
  • 1:24:00 Greg Urquhart—What does Agile even mean now?

Last night I took the train down to Edinburgh for my second Lean Agile Edinburgh meetup.

Started in June 2013, Lean Agile Edinburgh is an informal and social monthly meetup to discuss and share all things agile, lean, kanban, scrum, etc. At most meetups we have talks, workshops/activities or Lean-Coffee discussion sessions.

Yesterday’s meetup was kindly hosted by Royal London at their new offices at Haymarket Yards in Edinburgh, a short hop, skip and a jump from the railway station. Last month’s was hosted at the other end of Princes Street, in the Amazon Development Centre Scotland offices at Waverley Gate.

The evening began with an opportunity to network and chat with folks over pizza and refreshments, before we took our seats for three excellent presentations.

Explain and explore

The first session was a very hands-on, get out of your seats and move about exercise lead by Kathy Thomson, a scrum master at Royal London.

We were each given a postcard and pencil and invited to answer the following question in either a word or short phrase: “What does agile transformation mean for you?”

I wrote something like, “Iterative change that is collaborated on by a team towards a shared goal”.

With our postcards completed we were invited to stand in a large open space to the near the presentation area, and turning to the person next to us explain our answers.

Next we were invited to exchange our cards with someone else, and then someone else, and so on until we had effectively shuffled the cards. I ended up on in the middle of the room. This was the ‘explore‘ part of the exercise.

And then again we were to pair up with the person next to us and explain to them the card we were holding. Which, obviously, was now not our own card. Interestingly, I felt less defensive about explaining this card. And I appreciated seeing someone else’s perspective on the same question.

Somehow, I ended up with two cards for this one! And I can’t remember either of them.

And then we were off around the room again, quickly exchanging cards, and pairing up to explain our new cards to one another. Mine simply said, “Pace”.

It was a really interesting and useful exercise, even with a room of about 60 people.

Control Influence Accept model

Returning to our seats, Krish Bissonauth, an Agile coach at Royal London, introduced us to the Control Influence Accept model (or CIA model).

This is a versatile problem-solving and stress-management tool that identifies three ways to respond to challenges:

  • Control—identify the elements of the situation over which you have control.
  • Influence—identify the elements over which you have no control but which you can influence.
  • Accept—identify the elements over which you have neither control nor acceptance, which you will simply need to accept and adapt to.

I loved the Clarke Ching quote he finished with. It spoke about social comparison—why do your Facebook friends’ holidays and kids look so much better than your own? It’s simple: their lives are just like ours but they only share the good stuff. So it is with books we read and presentations we experience about Agile and DevOps: we see the good stuff and we feel bad.

His message: stop comparing yourself to the “Facebook” versions of Agile and DevOps, and start comparing yourself with how you were doing three weeks ago, three months ago, three years ago, and feel proud of the all the hard work you are doing and the progress you have made.

What does Agile even mean now?

The final talk was by former Skyscanner product delivery director, and current Agile 4-12 consultant Greg Urquhart.

There was much in Greg’s talk that resonated with me, but it was what he called his “cut the Agile bullshit-o-meter” slide that I found most helpful. He had set himself the task of limiting his definition of what agile is to just five bullet points. This is what he came up with:

  1. A culture of experimentation constantly generates validated learning.
  2. Teams have missions, mastery and the autonomy to act with no strings attached.
  3. Software is frequently delivered to users. We learn its value through serious use.
  4. Teams and resources align beautifully to strategic objectives at all times.
  5. Minimum viable bureaucracy.

If you’re not doing these five things, he argued, then you’re not agile.

Towards the end of his talk he advocated for what he called scientific engineering (learning work) and argued that this more than lean and agile (knowledge work) would bring about the most effective and productive change.

This aligns with another talk I attended recently in Perth at the Scottish Programme and Project Management Group conference, where one of the speakers encouraged all the project managers and business analysts in the room to start to get familiar with big data and data analysis. It’s what the most valuable companies in the world are doing—Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook. They are using data (massive amounts of data) to design and refine their products.

I walked away from last night’s meetup feeling encouraged and more animated. It has certainly given me a lot to consider, a couple more tools under my belt, and a little more clarity about the direction I want to take my career.

Thanks Lean Agile Edinburgh.

Kiwi for Gmail—initial impressions

For the last few years, I’ve been faithfully using eM Client as my preferred way of accessing my Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Contacts. But this past weekend—having vowed to myself that during 2018 I wouldn’t change any of my productivity tools and instead just focus on getting stuff done—I made the switch to Kiwi for Gmail 2.0 and I have to say that I’m delighted.

Gmail as a native, windowed desktop app... kinda
Gmail as a native, windowed desktop app… kinda

Move away from eM Client

Since Google upgraded their calendar to Material Design I’ve been hugely impressed and have found myself using it almost as much as eM Client’s API view of the calendar. I now prefer the default web app view more than the desktop client.

Similarly, I’ve also found myself using the Gmail webapp almost as much as eM Client, find it to be a little quicker but also feeling that I should get to know the web interface more because it’s the default view.

But what really tipped me over the edge towards moving away from eM Client is how long it takes to open Google Contacts.

Move towards Kiwi for Gmail

I had used Kiwi for Gmail before, but version 2.0 seems to have been a cosmic leap forward compared with what I remembered of the first iteration.

Kiwi for Gmail appears to be a wrapper application that quickly—very quickly—loads the default Google web apps, with a little magic thrown in for good measure.

One of the most immediate is that I now have immediate access to five different Gmail accounts, without the need to log out of one before checking the other.

(This feature is only available in the paid-for version, which is currently on special offer for free with the code: WikiForFree.)

I now have immediate access to five Gmail accounts
I now have immediate access to five Gmail accounts

I’m really looking forward to Gmail getting the Material Design treatment. This will take Kiwi for Gmail to another level.

In the meantime, I’m going to see how I get on with Kiwi for Gmail. But for what it does, I can’t see myself going back to eM Client any time soon. I’ll try to remember to report back after a few months to give an update on how this experience is going.