A Martial Artist and Agile Coach Explains Shu-Ha-Ri

The author coaching his heavy bag on change

When I walked into the studio of Master Y.K. Kim in 1981, I was lost. Not in the physical sense; I was there on purpose, drawn by his Yellow Pages ad. I was lost in the spiritual sense. My identity was gone. As I looked around his low-rent dojang in Orlando, I spotted on a wall two statements of principle I’ll combine here:

  • “Help others.”
  • “Respect others.”
  • “Be honest.”
  • “Always stand by the weak.”

These perfectly captured what I was trying to regain in my life. I took my first lesson that afternoon. I broke my first board a week later.

Advanced students of the Korean martial art tae kwon do may recognize Master Kim’s name. His approach to the business side of TKD schools played a role in their proliferation, and he is a minor cult figure for a film project chronicled on the Vice channel. He also was an outstanding teacher who emphasized the philosophical side of the martial arts.

However, I earned my first black belt from another legend, Master S. Henry Cho of New York City. He was named a “Man of the Year” by Black Belt Magazine and sponsored a major international tournament at Madison Square Garden. Had I stayed with TKD, I would be at least a sixth-degree black belt by now.

But I chose a different path, akin to the samurai warriors of ancient Japan, who traveled around the country studying with masters of different weapons or techniques. Among other styles, I studied:

  • Okinawan karate with the head of the U.S. Association of Martial Arts, Master Jim Hawkes (from whom I earned my highest ranking, a 2nd-degree black belt);
  • a form of Chinese gung fu with a four-time Asian Games champion, in the school of one of the Ninja Turtles from the first live-action movie;
  • TKD again with a man featured on a Wesley Snipes TV special, Masters of the Martial Arts, Master Hee Il Cho; and
  • muay thai with the trainer of four UFC world champions, in the school one owned.

I still practice nearly every day. I had my own club for a while, and taught at a university, but decided I prefer studying to teaching. My ideal death is to get attacked by five bandits while using my quarterstaff as a cane at age 85, and taking at least two of them with me!

Regular readers know I have gained similar expertise as an Agile Transformation Coach. I believe this combination of backgrounds makes me uniquely qualified to clear up some myths around the application of shu-ha-ri to Agile. This Japanese term pops up in writings and presentations on Agile on occasion. In fact, I like the translation from the course I took years ago as part of my PMI-Agile Certified Practitioner certification:

  1. Shu (Following)—Novice or beginner; narrowly following given practices.
  2. Ha (Detaching):
    • Journeyman; following, but extending, perfecting, occasionally breaking the rules.
    • Mentoring in specific strength area.
  3. Ri (Fluent):
    • Expert; perfecting, to creating your own, practices.
    • Coaching; mentoring.
    • “Sticky” practices.[1]

I have found, however, that most Agile writers take the parts of this they like while ignoring the inconvenient ones. Here’s what a lifetime of physical and scholarly education in the martial arts has taught me about becoming Agile.

You can’t change the system until you learn it. One of the most misleading statements I see from Agile “thought leaders” is that you have to “tailor” an Agile method to your situation. I don’t disagree in principle, but the timing is all wrong. You do not tailor it before you adopt it. Try telling a martial arts master on your first day in the studio that the way she punches won’t work for you!

Master Kim illustrated this one day when a police officer, many of whom trained with him, asked for his money back after a few weeks. The student argued he was paying to learn how to fight, and Master Kim just had him doing basics over and over. Master Kim nodded for a moment, then said he needed the man to write down his name. When the officer did so, Master Kim asked, “If you did not know the alphabet, could you write your name?” The officer withdrew his request.

Learn how to ride the Agile bike before you take off the training wheels, much less customize the bike. Yes, you will have to make some minor adaptations to connect to your current situation, like deciding who will be the initial product owners. Otherwise, have the discipline to do what the system preaches until you understand it. Only then will you reach the ha level where you can begin breaking the rules. In the martial arts that takes years, so in an Agile transformation, at least give it a few months!

This isn’t just my opinion, by the way. Both the Association of Change Management Professionals in its Standard for Change Management[2] and the Project Management Institute (PMI) in its Agile Practice Guide[3] say you should adopt and learn a new system before tailoring.

You can only have one Agile master at a time. For the first few months of learning a style, you literally forget left from right. In group exercises, even higher-ranked students will turn the wrong way on occasion, because they are so focused on trying to get the move right. There is a massive number of details to perfect even at the ha level. For just one move combining a particular block, kick, or strike with a given stance and target area, you must have the positions of your fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders, neck, spine, hips, knees, ankles, and toes correct to have the best effect. Multiply that by each move, combine those moves into combinations, and those into longer “forms”—choreographed sets of combinations like a dance. The number of things to do right by a single master’s style is astronomical. An Agile method has fewer specifics per person, but because it involves so many people, the number is probably similar.

Now throw another master into that mix. Learning how to defend yourself efficiently will simply be impossible. Yes, I learned from many masters. But I only did so one at a time, and after gaining ha-level understanding of my first style. This is how the samurai did it, by the way. They would learn basic techniques at a more general school, then travel to specialized ones, staying at each until its weapon or technique was mastered.[4]

At the organization level, the most efficient way to adopt Agile is to hire one lead Agile master per “pod” of 150 people or so. If you insist on a standardized approach—which you do not need—let that person hire ha-level instructors to spread the master’s style. Otherwise you will get conflicts at the top that confuse learners and give them excuses to avoid parts of their “teacher’s” style they don’t like, by pointing to another coach.

Someone pushing a standardized system isn’t an Agile Master. Here’s a paradox I have learned in studying many different styles, some of them from different teachers of that style, and visiting hundreds of schools:

  • All of the martial arts have more in common than they want to admit, but
  • Even within the same association of schools in one style, ri-level masters do things differently.

Anyone who merely teaches Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) or LeSS or whatever “by the book” is not a master of that style of Agile. They are only a ha-level practitioner. Do not hire them to lead your Agile transformation. When they run into an integration issue unique to your setting, they will not have the expertise to provide a wise adaptation.

I have known lower-level martial arts teachers whose students all made the same mistakes, because instructors were trapped in their own mindsets. An example is a former national sparring champion so naturally quick and long-armed, he didn’t have to block incoming strikes to win. As a result, he de-emphasized blocking in the school, and I had a field day sparring even his most advanced students. True masters have a deep bag of tricks to draw from, and can apply the right adaptation after the student has learned the basics.

Now, of course, I can draw on a myriad of techniques to defeat my opponent, adapting to their style, body type, strengths and weaknesses. I am not a master of any pre-existing style, nor do I claim my unique style is better than any other. But I am the master of my highly effective style, which I have been able to pass along. The same is true for my style of Agile, Full Scale agile™.

Finally and most crucially… group discipline is required. Mastering any skill requires discipline, so mastering group skills requires group discipline. Hire an Agile master. Then do what they say to do for the many months it takes to truly understand even the simplest Agile method (shu). Then you can declare yourself ready to break the rules (ha), and evolve a unique approach to Agile that works best for your team (ri).


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[1] Simplilearn Solutions (2013), “PMI–Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI®-ACP),” online course materials.

[2] ACMP (2014). Standard for Change Management. Winter Springs, FL: Association of Change Management Professionals.

[3] PMI (2017). Agile Practice Guide. Newton Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

[4] Ratti, Oscar, and Adele Westbrook (2017). Secrets of the Samurai: A Survey of the Martial Arts of Feudal Japan. Edison, NJ: Castle Books.

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