Are We There Yet?:  The Shu Ha Ri of Becoming Agile

A former student approached me recently and told me that many of the teams at her clients were stuck in the “having” stage of agile.  When I asked her what she meant, she replied, “Well, they ‘have’ a ScrumMaster, they ‘have’ a product backlog, they have a team room…”  As we talked, I began to seen a parallel with Shu Ha Ri, the cycle of progress in the martial arts.  Having is like the Shu stage.  In Shu, the student builds a foundation.  This is when the student learns and puts into place the basic techniques.  While these “haves” establish a foundation, they are not enough by themselves.  Having does not create agility.

In another conversation last month at the Quest 2011 conference, one of the participants turned to another and asked if they were “doing” agile.   The response was,  “Oh yes.  We do agile.  We are ‘doing’ iterations and daily standups.”  Doing is like the Ha stage in Shu Ha Ri.  In Ha, the student practices and instills discipline.  During Ha, repeated practice creates muscle memory of the techniques and the student begins to reason and understand the intent behind the techniques.  Still, “doing” is not enough.

The purpose of agile is to become agile.  We don’t want to have agile.  We don’t want to do agile.  We want to be agile.  Being is like the Ri stage of Shu Ha Ri.  In Ri, the student transcends imitation and intent and progresses to creating.  Being agile is a creative process, one that includes practice, learning, tearing down, building up and doing it over and over again.  This cycle of progression is essential to being agile and is, after all, what it is all about.