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Becoming Agile with ShuHaRi

Agile-ShuHaRiEarlier this month I managed to catch a presentation from Florian Ivan on Becoming Agile with ShuHaRi. Florian has already created a few blog posts already about the Agile Organisation and I was keen to see where a Japanese martial arts concept fits with agile. The full presentation from Florian is available here to download.

Agile is a philosophy, not a process, method or recipe to follow. In fact there are no models and therefore no guarantees to success by following a step by step perscribed approach. It is not a case of following a process and at the end we have a fully agile organisation. But we do need a guide, something to help us tap into the philosophy of Agile and use it in a tangible way.

The basis of Agile is continuous improvement and you will often be aware of the term Kaizen, another Japanese word which means continuous improvement, used in relation to Agile. The picture with Florian sums it up nicely, “Agile is a journey, not a destination!” Overtime we learn to adapt our approach depending on our organisation and on our client’s own needs.

There are three ways that Agile organisations tend to operate.

1. They are able to identify their value

2. They organise themselves to deliver it

3. They improve, always.


shuhari-esiThe ShuHaRi Model

The concept of ShuHaRi comes from the Japanese Noh theatre and it is a model used to illustrate the path an apprentice needs to take from the moment he or she expresses the interest to learn about something until that person becomes a master. Although the concept originated from the world of theatre it became famous in martial arts. In fact, many people still believe today that this is a martial arts technique. Because it accurately describes the evolution in skills and practice when implementing an agile methodology, it is one of the most used models to plan and execute the transition to a new way of working. Interestingly enough, the model is so famous in the Agile world that some believe this is an Agile technique barrowed by other fields, like martial arts.

There are three levels. Shu, Ha and Ri.


At the beginning Shu, you are a young student, you have to learn. You have to find someone to trust and learn from.

You are a young student so…

  • Follow the way
  • Learn patience
  • Focus on practice
  • Analyze mistakes
  • Ask why-questions
  • Try to understand
  • Meet with customers
  • Learn by doing

You start this with a lot of enthusiasm and hope. Especially if you had a good trainer. The biggest problem here is trying to change the world. In one day!

One very important aspect of Agile is that it is based on continuous, incremental improvement – known as Kaizen – which basically means you cannot change anything dramatically.

You can only improve.

Probably things around you will not change because you’ve been in an Agile training and they’ll continue to be as “anti-agile” as they were before.

What is always recommended at this stage is to build a plan. Nothing fancy, just setting some objectives (don’t forget about the “achievable” part) and a few actions that would get you there.

As simple as it sounds, most organisations don’t do it. Particularly in Agile, there are some things that are achievable in three months, some which require more time and some that will take a lot of time. Setting the wrong expectations can be very damaging for the whole initiative.


As hard as it may seem, some people and organisations do survive the Shu period.

Now that it works…

  • Become confident
  • Detach and break away
  • Learn from others
  • Look for case studies
  • Explore other ways
  • Analyze and learn
  • Discover the world around

Early results will give you the courage to look outside at how others are doing it and with what results.

You may even compare yourself with them.

The Ha level is about breaking away. Knowing other ways of doing it, other practices, other interpretations. This will contribute to a better understanding of what Agile is, how it can be used and what results it can bring. If the first level was about trying to do it right, this level is about understanding the limitations of the way you are doing it.


The third level is the true mastery of Agile. You are now an expert and most of your learning comes from your own work. This time the learning is based not on doing (like at the first level – Shu), not on observing others (like at the second level – Ha) but on your own reflections. Thinking being the ultimate form of learning.

You made it! You’re a master now!

  • Learning comes from your own work
  • More and more thinking
  • Realize there is much more to learn
  • Others learn from you
  • Understand the “journey”

How Does ShuHaRi Model Manifest Itself?

Here we have learning points from different roles within an Agile team. In the early days of Shu – the 3 months (4-6 sprints) the focus is on understanding the Agile philosophy, the ceremonies and techniques that take place. This example is taken from a banking organisation. At the 6 month mark, there are still pockets of Shu and increasing Ha – understanding the limitations of why you’re doing Agile. They recognise that the journey has been hard so far and they understand there is still a lot more to do before feeling more confident that the Ha stage is more advanced for them.



Florian also spoke at a Strategy Execution event earlier in the year in Central London and you can still catch that presentation here. In it, Florian talks about how organisations can become Agile and what it really means to be an Agile organisation:




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About Lindsay Scott

Lindsay Scott
Lindsay Scott is Director of PMO Learning, the PMO training specialist and Arras People the programme and project management recruitment specialists. Lindsay is the project management careers columnist for PMI's Network magazine and co-editor of the Gower Handbook of People in Project Management. Lindsay created and hosts The PMO Conference and hosts the monthly PMO Flashmobs

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