Friday, April 19, 2013

Shu Ha Ri and self organizing teams

Preface. I've been away from this blog for a while as I've been on projects with a high degree of security and afraid of disclosing something inadvertently. But since this article references my son Jason and I don't believe I am disclosing any secrets it is here for all to see.

 I recently ended an engagement with a customer as an Agile Coach. I learned a lot from the experience and I'm gratified by many of the comments I've received from those I worked with on the project. None the less as I've had a chance to reflect on this engagement it brings to mind that we should recognize that there are multiple strategies to follow regarding the process some refer to as Agile Transformation. In many cases managers observe a sea change and decide that they also want an Agile organization. Or they read a report from a leading industry analyst that says in so many years 80% of all projects will be Agile. How one goes about that Agile transformation is critical for determining the outcome of the transformation effort.

Culture and organizational norms are an important factor in the strategy to engage in agile transformation. Years ago a colleague said to me "just tell them what you want them to do and stop asking so many questions." I was initially shocked by such a comment. But now I realize that I was not reading and adjusting to the situation I was in. I was continuing an engagement style that I had fallen in to the habit of that was more appropriate for a team that was at Ha or Ri. (if you are not familiar with the Shu Ha Ri stages of mastery I urge you to check out work by Alister Cockburn at These are Japanese words and roughly translated they mean first learn, then detach, and finally transcend.

 I think this dynamic is also at play in certain situations when I work with someone and and they ask for help with a tool or a program. I am always inclined to want to give people a fishing pole thinking it is more valuable than a fish. (Give a man a fishing pole you will feed him of a life time, given him fish and you feed him for a day) But what I miss is that they just want and need to experience an initial success. They don't need all the theory and such. My son will even tell me sometimes "Dad, I just want a fish". This is code for stop explaining and just tell me what I need to be successful one time. I need to learn patience so that their initial success will generate hunger for the fishing pole.Then I can teach.

 The Shu Ha Ri wisdom says for a beginner, some one at Shu ,they should rigorously follow the rituals and ceremonies described by the practice until it has become ingrained and part of their "muscle memory". The thinking is that until they have lived it and personally witnessed the benefits and achieved a deep understanding they are not yet in a position to tailor or depart from the tradition. Unfortunately this notion runs smack into a conflict with the notion of a self organizing team.

People begin their Agile transformation with a short course. They hear about self organizing teams and then after they start practicing scrum they say this business of standing up for the 15 min daily scrum meeting is silly. Lets all sit in the comfy chairs at the nice conference table and have a 30 to 60 minute meeting. We are are going to self organize this meeting to something we are more comfortable with. This begs the question - is the right to self organize something a team earns or is available from the start?

 My personal journey to "be Agile" came through a variety of initiatives that were more evolutionary in their nature. Small incremental inspect and adapt cycles towards becoming more Agile. Until my most recent engagement I assumed that was the appropriate path for every one else.

Now having more experience with highly structured and command and control/para military type organizations more common in government organizations I can see the wisdom of Shu Ha Ri. Assuming there is support from the leadership in the organization an organization with a strong command and control culture is probably better off with more radical and abrupt adoption of Agile practices along the lines of Shu Ha Ri. They don't get to use the self organizing principal as a license to bend and adjust practices till they have delivered 100 units of value or some other metric of real progress and accomplishment. They need to get past Shu before they can self organize.

 Consider an organization that has had some success and wants to begin a transformation to Agile.They had already achieved a certain level of maturity and may already have a software process improvement effort underway of many years a gradual adoption of Agile may make sense. They get to credit for their past success and more rapidly pass through Shu on to Ha and eventually Ri. Because they have a legacy of producing working software I'd say they have more latitude to adapt and self organize.

So I've learned that it is critically important to read the setting and adjust gears, For a new team, especially one grounded in command and control, rigorous application of agile practices and ceremony is important for success. Teams that have a history of producing working software have earned the right to adjust and transcend the traditional practices.