Aug 03

Surpass the master

In our Agile community there is something known as Shu-Ha-Ri. It is an Aikido term and it stands for the transition from student to master and in the process of growing and learning, surpassing the master in wisdom. The idea is that the student becomes the master and the master turns into the student. Somehow when you look at our community, there are a lot of people very motivated and driven to change our managing world. But we seem to stay where we are as students.

In their teachings our agile masters have explained us how to work with the Agile tools, either Scrum, Kanban or any other way. They have taught us to think differently. We use their words in our teachings. We do what they told us. But rarely we try to grow beyond their teachings. We fantasize of becoming the next Sutherland, Schwaber or Anderson. But we stay safely under their wings. I’m not saying that this is wrong but we teach to others that they should adapt. We tell others to change and to reform the work models to what is needed. We tell them to find new ways, but every time a new book arrives, a new blog is written, or seminar is held. We tend to grab hold of the old teachings and dare not to question the ways. We stay within the save boundaries that we like to call Agile. There are a lot of smart people around us, writing and rethinking everything, every day. But the are not yet the masters. They are still in the Ha state. They are equal but not surpassing the master. I include myself amongst them. I might even be a little Shu if you like.

Agile seems to be rooted in the foundations of large companies. It becomes the soul of teachings. Big educational centers teach and certify according to the standards. But it does not seem to change a lot. Until now I haven’t yet read a book about radical change beyond Scrum or Kanban. There is a lot written about the basics with some add-ons about the stuff we already know. Written in different styles, but in essence the same. Hell, even I’m doing it. Are we ever going to shake the feathers of the old teachings? When are we going to move on to the next faze, and move to teachings that go beyond what we know now and have learned. When will the new Masters emerge and start teaching the old ones.

It would be nice if this happens. After all that is what our masters are telling us from the beginning. ‘Grow and move on.  Change the world of management and evolve.’ They say. ‘Don’t be afraid to make it your own, be agile and tell others to do the same. ‘

Shuhari roughly translates to “first learn, then detach, and finally transcend.”

shu (守) “protect”, “obey” — traditional wisdom — learning fundamentals, techniques, heuristics, proverbs
ha (破) “detach”, “digress” — breaking with tradition — detachment from the illusions of self
ri (離) “leave”, “separate” — transcendence — there are no techniques or proverbs, all moves are natural, becoming one with spirit alone without clinging to forms; transcending the physical


Image:  Morhei Ueshiba – the founder of Aikido

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  • Hi Erwin,

    While I agree with the premise that we should all be learning and growing beyond the teachings of previous ‘masters’, I believe that this has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen.

    You mention David Anderson, but his first book on Kanban didn’t come out until 2010 (according to Amazon), almost 10 years after the manifesto was published. It’s unlikely he was considered a ‘master’ back in 2001.

    We’ve also seen things like Continuous Delivery, BDD, The Lean Startup, Radical Management, Rightshifting, Lean UX, etc. None of which seem to run counter to the values and principles laid out in the Agile Manifesto and none of the people behind those are among the original authors of the manifesto.

    One of the brilliant things about the Agile manifesto, and to a lesser extent things like Scrum and Kanban is that they are so minimal. For example, the manifesto itself simply describes a mindset and values system shared by a group of people. That mindset has proven to be incredibly valuable. People have run with those ideas and have added other ideas that they have learned through applying it.

    When Scrum started, people used to think 4 week sprints were impossible, now people are finding two weeks sprints far too long and the reason behind that is that “We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.” 

    Perhaps it’s this increase in collaboration (helping others do it) that makes it seem as if we’re all in this together instead of having a “master” at the top handing down the teachings to those below. In fact, that hierarchical model seems to be one of the things we should be striving to do away with.

    “When are we going to move on to the next faze”

    People used to say Agile was a fad, now it seems people are disappointed that it wasn’t and that it hasn’t been replaced by a new fad yet. I suppose that’s bad news for consultants that make a living off selling the new fad.

    • I agree. The reason I wrote this was that I see that there is a lot of things going on. People rethink the way it was originally designed. But as soon as it comes to official ways a lot of followers fall back to the rules, so to say. As if they are afraid to go for the next step. I’m not saying that this is happening everywhere. The bottom line is that sometime we forget to burn the books and step away from what is written and said. To push the boundaries and evolve. It is very important to not forget that. To keep on questioning and searching for answers.