Tag 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. 

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.