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Shu Ha Ri: The Stages of Learning to Mastery

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Recently I attended a presentation by Alistair Cockburn. He is one of the initiators of the agile movement in software development and one of the 17 authors of the Agile Manifesto. During his presentation he introduced the Japanese martial arts concept of Shuhari and it’s applicability to the learning process in general and the mastery of development processes in particular.

The Stages of Learning to Mastery

People learn skills in a 3-stage progression: Shu / Ha / Ri

1Shu 2Ha 3Ri

Shu: Follow

Learn a technique

Ha: Break away

Collect techniques

Ri: Fluent

Blend techniques

From Agile Software Development first edition, 2001:

People who are learning and mastering new skills pass through three quite different stages of behavior: following, detaching, and fluent.

People in the following stage look for one procedure that works. Even if ten procedures could work, they can’t learn ten at once. They need one to learn first, one that works. They copy it; they learn it. In this stage, practitioners measure success by (a) whether the procedure works and (b) how well they can carry out the procedure.

In the detaching, or Level 2, stage, people locate the limitations of the single procedure and look for rules about when the procedure breaks down. They are actually in the first stage of a new learning; namely, learning the limits of the procedure. The person in the detaching stage learns to adapt the procedure to varying circumstances. She is now more interested in learning the ten alternative procedures, in learning when each is most applicable and when each breaks down.

In the third, fluent stage, it becomes irrelevant to the practitioner whether she is following any particular technique or not. Her knowledge has become integrated throughout a thousand thoughts and actions. Ask her if she is following a particular procedure, and she is likely to shrug her shoulders: It doesn’t matter to her whether she is following a procedure, improvising around one, or making up a new one. She understands the desired end effect and simply makes her way to that end.

In other words a Shu person knows exactly one technique and will stick to it whether it is appropriate to solve the particular problem or not. Only a few persons will break away and learn other techniques and eventually become Ri persons. A Ri person has developed a large repertoire of techniques and applies the best possible techniques to solve the problem at hand.

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