Category Archives: Learning

Why Best Practice lives in a Shu Box

Shu-Ha-Ri is a popular metaphor in Agile Circles. 

It’s borrowed from Martial Arts (where it works well) and one way to explain it might be:

  1. Shu – Follow the rules
  2. Ha – Break the rules (adapting them to your context)
  3. Ri – Become the rules

It is most often used as a justification for why beginners should not question their ScrumMaster™ (or process) and simply follow the rules laid down for them by the methodology. 

Much like jazz, any given student1 is only permitted to rise to the next level of the process once they’ve conquered the preceding steps.  i.e. you don’t earn the right to break the rules until you’ve proved that you can follow the rules.2

What’s this got to do with Best Practice?

The term “Best Practice” tends to mean “Industry Best Practice” – people want to adopt Best Practice because it’s considered as something that has been proven to work elsewhere.  i.e. it’s a way to short-cut learning.3

If we say for the moment that we’re talking about authentic Best Practice here, then any deviation from the rules therefore means some kind of sub-optimal performance on the part of the implementers (and should obviously be avoided).

It’s a Good Idea, it’s how Humananity has managed to continue to make technological and societal progress that extends well beyond the confines of the average human lifespan.

The Democratisation of Excellence

There is only one problem. For something to be widely regarded as Best Practice, then it has to be somewhat democratised.  By which I mean it needs to be able to be widely implemented.

If something is widely implementable however, it means that it does not, by definition, take advantage of any organisational or personal strengths.

Thus if we return to the martial arts roots of Shu-Ha-Ri – your Kyū level training will teach you how to punch effectively and without breaking your wrists, but it won’t help you take full advantage of the fact that you’ve got shoulders that would put Schwarzenegger to shame.

By Definition, Ha means Abandoning Best Practice

“Ha” means to break the rules.4  This “right” accrues to the martial arts student upon the event that they are able to prove that they can follow the rules without deviation.

(Thus, we can safely assume that the rules are not being broken due to an insufficiency in ability)5

Once so gifted, students will then begin to break (some of) the rules in order to better adapt the techniques to their individual contexts – always in an endevour to produce superior results.6

For these students, Best Practice ceased to be enabling and had become limiting.

Best Practice is a step along the journey, it’s not the destination

There is actually a lot to discuss around Shu-Ha-Ri7, and I know that some people (Adam Yuret comes to mind)  dislike the concept simply because it creates an apparent hierachy, encouraging people to self identify as “Ha” or even “Ri” simply because that’s a higher grade.

But the simple point I want to make here – is the surprising position that Best Practice finds itself in.

It’s nothing more than the lid of the Shu-Box.


  1. Side thought – wouldn’t it be nice if we all regarded ourselves as students of Agile rather than practitioners, masters or gurus? I doubt you could find many Black Belts in Karate who actually regarded themselves as no longer being a student of the art. 
  2. Skipping this step in music is all that separates jazz from punk. 
  3. Afterall, who wants to be learning when they could be doing 
  4. Yes, the ones you just spent at least 5 years learning. 
  5. There is also the presumption that at least some level of understanding has occured. At the very least, once the student is able to revert to “best practice” at any time, they can now judge for themselves as to whether their adaptations are providing superior outcomes or not.  Also from my personal experience, truly studying a martial art instils a strong degree of humility. (Contrary to what much of Hollywood might portray) 
  6. As opposed simply for the purposes of saying “Hey look I invented my own Martial Art!  It has a different name, an extra few belts and I’m the GrandMaster!” 
  7. I think I have enough Blog Drafts on the topic to fill a book. 

The parable of the water

I was out for a walk the other day with some friends and their family. About halfway through the walk one of the boys declared that he was thirsty. No problem says Dad, here is $2, there are some shops, go buy yourself a bottle of water. The boy runs off. I think no more of it.

A few minutes later, the boy comes running back to his father, not with a bottle of water, but rather with the same $2 coin. He gives the coin back to his father and simply said “Mum says no”.

Curious I think. Why would a mother deny their child a drink of water?

Later, I discover why.

“I denied him the water, so that he’d learn to plan better next time, so that he’d learn to learn from his mistakes (however small they may be), and to eventually come to the understanding that almost all his decisions have consequences of some kind.”

At the time I thought “Wow, that’s a really great mother”

And this morning I thought “Wow, that’s a woman who really understands Scrum”[1]

These rules are here to help

I think something that has perhaps been a bit forgotten is that the Scrum rules, much like our mothers, are here to help. We may not always want to do what they’re suggesting, but oftentimes it’s exactly when we want to the least that we need to the most.

The most obvious parallel to my water bottle story is one of the most hated[2] rules in Scrum – being:

    The Product Owner may not change their mind during the Sprint

This is often quoted as the reason that Scrum is “not Agile”[3] but there are several good reasons for it.

The one I want to highlight today is simply “So that our Product Owners can learn to plan better

Imagine speaking to the ScrumMaster after they had denied the Product Owner a mid Sprint change if they explained:

“I denied him the change, so that he’d learn to plan better next time, so that he’d learn to learns from his mistakes, however small, and come to an understanding that all his backlog prioritisation decisions have real world consequences of some kind”[4]

Doesn’t sound so bad now, does it?


  1. Not the letter, but the principles. It’s quite possible that she’s never heard of or has any interest at all in Scrum. And I’m certainly not suggesting that she’s using Scrum to raise her children.  ↩

  2. And by association, one of the least followed.  ↩

  3. Often by people who define Agile as flailing around building random things based on whim.  ↩

  4. I can imagine that I’ve actually outraged some readers at this point by suggeting to them that their Product Owners don’t consider the consequences of their actions before acting. Well, I have two responses to that:

    1. I’m pretty sure not all of them do, so count yourself lucky if this is not the case for you

    2. Even some of the best PO’s may be new to the concept that their Backlog prioritisation decisions have immediate effects on both the finances and morale of the organisation. This seemingly annoying minor Scrum rule is designed to help them remember that.  ↩

Have you Mastered the Basics?

So I’ve noticed a trend in recent years. Whereby a lot of people are hungry for “advanced” Agile and Lean techniques (whether it be at a conference, in the classroom or in a coaching engagement)

So far so good, both Agile and Lean have been around for decades – and so it should not be a surprise that people are passed the basics and ready for some more advanced stuff.

But a conundrum often arises in these situations whereby the organisations and people most eager to learn the more advanced techniques are the very same ones that are yet come to grips with (let alone having mastered) the basics of Agile or Lean.1 (This is obviously a generalisation and not true in every case, but it’s sufficiently widespread for me to consider it a trend)

As I tweeted back in January:

And talking to other established consultants, trainers and practitioners it seems that I’m not alone in this observation.

So what’s going on?

There seem to be two fundamentally different views on what “the basics” are actually comprised of.2

And these two views may be an attribute that is unique to (or at the very least exacerbated by) the very nature of Lean, Agile & Systems Thinking.

(So again making a gross generalisation here)

Many people tend to class the basics as things that you do.3

Whereas “we in community” tend to class the basics as concepts you understand.

And thus many feel that they have mastered the basics when they can go through the motions – they write things on post-it’s or enter them into a tool – perhaps they set WIP limits, and they almost certainly know which three magic questions lead to hyperproductivity

But because they’ve not mastered the basics by the community’s definition – they often fail to yield any benefits from these changes (sometimes they do however, but that’s a topic for another time) – and thus they feel the hunger for something more advanced. Something more to do.

So this explains the phenomena – at least to my satisfaction – but it does not necessarily provide an answer 😉

Except perhaps that we should more carefully consider how we use our language and how we label things; because Basic Practices != Fundamental Concepts.4


  1. This does however put me in mind of an episode of House (“House vs God”) – where Wilson convinces a child who believes that he is a saint and thus does not need surgery to have surgery through the argument that an actual saint would have the humility to believe that they were in fact just sick and not in fact special. 
  2. This being an entirely different question to “what the basics actually are” – I’m arguing ontology here. 
  3. As soon as you do that, it’s also easy to apply models like Dreyfus 
  4. Ease of measurement and evaluation plays a big part here too. It’s much quicker and easier to determine whether or not somebody is having a 15 minute Daily Scrum than it is to determine whether or not everybody has internalised the value of (say) slack.