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I find it curious when organizations that want to take on significant change with an Agile Transformation, immediately start to look at what they can change about the chosen framework before the ink is dry on the decision to change.

The conversation typically follows a similar path each time, “I’ve heard Agile can make us (better/faster/insert improvement here), so we want to learn how to do it, but…here’s how we want to do it here because (insert any ‘we are different’ excuse here).

Already the organization has determined they know more than they do, and have a plan to execute it in a manner that suits their needs. And yet they have not taken the first step to learning prior to changing.

I recently came across a great article about Shu Ha Ri that made me think about how much we disregard it. I’ve been familiar with the concept, it’s a standard topic in any Agile training as a way to describe the phases of mastery. As a coach, it’s not only applicable to my learning journey, and recognition of where I am, but it’s also my responsibility to help those that I am coaching understand where they are, and more importantly, where they are not.

This is the summary of Shu Ha Ri taken from the article:

  • Shu (守), “protect”“follow the rule”: in this phase the practitioner applies every method, approach or rule that the teacher provides. The rule is followed to the letter. This is where it’s important to follow every detail, even if it seems unimportant, and not deviate from the teachings. This is the phase when a new discipline, approach or technique is learned in its intimacy, step by step. The rules are also repeated over and over in order to assimilate them. This is important not because a specific path is better than the other, but because following a single path till the end is the most efficient way to learn.

  • Ha (破), “cut”“break the rule”: the practitioner has now reached a level where all the rules are well known and it’s possible to break them when necessary. The practitioner is also able to teach other learners, discuss the topic and improve the discipline itself. This is when the rules are questioned, the reason of their existence is put into the spotlight and the foundation becomes visible from the high point of the Shu studies.

  • Ri (離), “depart”“be the rule”: the practitioner now doesn’t just follow the rule, methods and approaches: the practitioner is the rule, transcends the rule. The concepts are so well assimilated that are second nature, and they can be even completely abandoned if the goal requires it. The practitioner is extending the discipline.

How many of us enable the organizations we are here to help, feel empowered to jump past Shu before they are ready? They have not mastered the muscle memory of ‘wax on/wax off’ before they want to jump into creating their own framework. We sometimes fall into the trap of trying to please our employers or clients, and allow this slippage into an area they are not ready for, and we risk setting them up for failure.

When we ask them to follow the framework as it is to start, we are called ‘fanatics’ and that we need to be more flexible, to not follow the framework so rigidly. We are asked to ‘adapt’ the principles and processes of the framework to their ‘very unique situation’.

While there will be adaptation to their needs, that comes later in the process. Truthfully if there was no adaptation and evolution, we would not be able to claim success. But there needs to be ‘patience Daniel-san, first learn to stand, then learn to fly.’

There will be time for Ri, to depart from the rule, but for now, let’s try to understand the rule and why it is there, and what it is meant to teach us, before we determine we don’t need it.

Trust me to protect and guide you as you have asked me to.

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