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Shuhari and the Evolution of the Team

November 13, 2009

The concept of Shuhari was mentioned on more than one occasion while I was at Agile 2009 in Chicago this past summer. Alistair Cockburn was the first to mention it in his keynote speech I Come to Bury Agile, Not to Praise It. It then surfaced again when Declan Whelan spoke about Learning is the Key to Agile Success: Building a Learning Culture on Your Agile Team. Shuhari originated in Japan as a martial arts concept describing the stages of learning to mastery. The word is actually three words combined.

Shu – protect or obey. It is based on traditional wisdom where the student learns all they can from their master, and accepts any instruction and criticism they are offered. The master acts as a protector, steering the student and watching out for their best interests.

Ha – detach or digress. Up until this point the student did everything based on fundamental teachings. At this point the student will start to break with tradition and apply more imaginative techniques, building on what they have learned. They will also start to question and start to evolve based on their own personal experience.

Ri – leave or separate. At this point the learner transcends to a point where there are no longer specific techniques that are being followed since everything now come naturally. The student has learned everything they can from their master and leaves. The student bases their learning almost completely through self-discovery with no actual instruction.  Ideally the student should have surpassed the master, allowing for the art to progress.

I found this concept to be very intriguing and it got me thinking about how it applies closer to home.  The development team at Point2 is always in a state of learning. In many instances the student and the teacher roles are obvious. A new college graduate will likely be paired with a veteran developer in a mentoring role, while more experienced developers will pair with each other, hopefully learning from one another.  I really believe that the last point in the Ri description is key. In order for the art to evolve and progress, the student must surpass their teacher.

A dilemma arises when everyone reaches that Ri stage and no one is able to get back into the Shu mindset. If everyone believes there is nothing new to learn, an obvious problem is created – your team will likely fail because they will lose their ability to compete. This is where having a culture of learning is paramount. People have to think of ShuHaRi as a circular idea that has no beginning and no end. If an entire team is dedicated making their colleagues the best that they can be, and are willing to learn from each other, the possibility of stagnating as a team fades away.

How is Point2 attempting to keep Shuhari a cyclical pattern? We mentor our new recruits, putting trust in our veteran developers to lead them down the correct paths. We pair program nearly 100% of the time, ensuring that developers are always teaching each other new techniques and skills. We dedicate Friday afternoons to personal professional development. People can choose to present or lead a workshop for a group, get together to develop a small application, or just spend some me time reading a book or watching a webcast. The point being is that our development team understands the value in learning and can see the relationship between the development of their careers and the success of the business.  Shuhari may not be a well known concept in the halls of Point2, but that doesn’t mean it’s not alive and well.

By Hemant J. Naidu

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