Best In Shu

Let’s get #BestInShu trending.

Hashtag proposal: #BestInShu – annotate / celebrate behaviour of individuals / teams as they toe the line between Shu & Ha in their solid accomplishing of specific Agile practices, or clear embracing of the mindset / particular Agile principles.

Forget “Do Re Mi” – we be talkin’ “Shu Ha Ri”.

Amongst Agilists, we like sprinkling in Japanese words where appropriate: Kaizen (actionable item of improvement), Muda & Mura & Muri (3 kinds of waste, from Lean, from The Toyota Production System), and here: Shu & Ha & Ri (competency model). Here’s how I think of them.

  • Shu – do the forms
  • Ha – tweak the forms
  • Ri – be formless

In the beginning, you are Shu – a beginner, an apprentice, a learner. Since you don’t know much, and there are many who have come before you, the advice is to copy. In martial arts, repeatedly practice those sequences of movements – you will feel that this is useless, and that you’re better than this, but if you want mastery, start here. In Scrum, follow the Scrum Guide and do all the events – you will feel that this is useless, and that you’re better than this, but if you want mastery, start here.

In Shu, there are standard ways of doing things. As a beginner, just copy these. This Shu stage takes discipline & repetition.

After some time, you are Ha – advanced, a journeyman, a practitioner. Since you have spent more time practicing, you have also experienced more of a craft, as well as the different contexts in which to apply your craft. In martial arts, mix ‘n’ match those moves as you react and then respond to the environment. In Scrum, adapt the framework to better suit the team and context, e.g., I have had teams refine one backlog item at the very end of the Daily Scrum, allowing time through the day for folks to investigate the next prioritized & unrefined item.

In Ha, there are still standard ways of doing things. Now that you’re advanced, break these rules thoughtfully. This Ha stage takes sensing & responding.

Once eons have passed, you are Ri – an expert, a master, a trainer. I think of a local comedian who’s no longer on the circuit, Chris Coxen. He gets up on stage as Barry Tattle in a burgundy velvet suit, with a mustache and shades, swanky music playin’, and… he riffs. A line that has stuck with me is, “I don’t tell jokes. I exist.” (I later found him and told him how deep that line is. He told me that he didn’t prepare it, and he rarely remembers what he says because he’s so in flow in his character. Chris really does… exist.)

In Ri, you know there will always be forms. As an expert, you know the reasons behind them and act not from the forms, but from ‘the why’ behind the forms. This Ri stage takes embodying a deep understanding, and giving, often by teaching.

This is how I think of the competency model. There are plenty of other descriptions out there if you’re not satisfied with what I’ve got here. Anyway, I share all this as context for my hashtag proposal up above.

Let us celebrate instances of advanced newbiness! These are milestones on a journey that takes time, perspiration, and patience, so positive forms of nudging should be welcomed, and encouraged.


Out-Agiled by Nursery School

It’s true. It’s embarrassing. I’m so proud.

My kid’s pre-school, for which I’m on the board, had a call late Thursday (March 12) to close the school starting Monday (March 16). That Friday (March 13), the director talked to the kids during Circle Time (whenever I talk about a Daily Scrum with my daughter, I highlight this as her equivalent) about the school closure over the next two weeks.

First of all, that sense of transparency, as much as she could conduct without instilling Coronavirus-fear, and placing some trust in the kiddos, is rather Agile in spirit. Love it. This wasn’t where I was out-done, though.

When I did drop-off that Friday, I was told they were interested in doing a video conference with all the families, so that each day we could do a dance party and read stories – keeping that connection between the kids and teachers, maintaining a semblance of normalcy during these times of Social Distancing.

“WE CAN USE ZOOM!” I exclaimed, pulling from my corporate experience, “I HAVE A FREE ACCOUNT! PEOPLE CAN JOIN FOR FREE!” I was excited to be able to provide some help, technically, in these times of need.

So Monday (March 16) rolls around. All the families get an email saying a YouTube channel was started, new videos uploaded daily. “Cool cool,” I thought to myself, before zipping an email their way, “SO WHEN WE GONNA TEST THIS ZOOM THING OUT? I mean, I don’t care either way, BUT IT’S TOTALLY AWESOME, AND OUR CONNECTIONS WOULD BE LIVE!” I guess I did care either way.

This is the Agile bit you were here to see…

The email response began:

When we all talked about it we were taking it one step at a time. Let’s see how these videos go and our responses and evolve and adapt from there.

Duh. Of course. Agile’d.

I’m so proud.

Three-Minute Sprint

Try it.

And no, that doesn’t mean y’gotta be all strict-Scrum about it by having a Planning meeting, then standing up every 30 seconds, then Retrospecting at the end, followed by a Review session. Plan beforehand. Retrospect & Review afterwards. Sit down for the full three minutes.

Get yourself to focus for a full three minutes on something, where you may not have a potentially shippable output, but there is some micro-milestone you can claim.

Try it.

What you’ll find is this kick-starts your productivity. You’re giving yourself space to work towards something. Sometimes it feels silly, but at least for me, most of the time I blow past the timer and keep going.

This idea pops up when building habits. Pulling again from “Atomic Habits” by James Clear, when implementing “The Third Law – Make It Easy”, he recommends starting with repetition over perfection. This is what is meant by the initially counter-intuitive phrase, “quantity over quality”.

Frequency builds habits. So make it easy by finding and doing the miniature version of the habit you really want. Want to do 10 push-ups? Do and be satisfied with 1 push-up. Want to focus on work for 30 minutes? Do and be satisfied with 3 minutes. It’s the frequency of the exercise session and the work session that builds those habits, so you might as well make it easy.

The book calls this the “Two-Minute Rule”. I like three. Partially ’cause I’m Merrill The Third, and partially ’cause my daughter has these hourglass sand timers. We don’t have a two-minute one, but we do have a three. This analog solution is very satisfying.

Try it.

Who knows. It might kick-start anything you tell yourself you want to do, like, say, oh, I dunno, write a blog post first draft in 30 minutes, just as an example. Insert winkie-face here.

Agile Habits

Google “Aristotle quotes”. Here’s the first one I see:

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

(Oooh. Starting with philosophy. Dorky. I like it.)

In his book “Atomic Habits“, James Clear builds off of this notion. Habits are those actions we take without trying – they’re automatic. The reason they’re automatic is we have found value in making them automatic – we either do them very frequently, or we have practiced them a lot. The benefit of automating them is so that we save brain energy to think through things that are novel, or things that matter, instead of things we do with a high enough frequency, like brush teeth before bed, or wash hands after coming back home, or wiping our sword on the grass before putting it away after the weekly field battle for the Hill of Arowyn with the neighbouring tribe.

(Oooh. An attempt at a Welsh word. Gaelic. I like it.)

Continue reading Agile Habits

You’re Making Something Cool

You’re making something cool.

Congrats – now let’s make some assumptions.

You’re a crew of lads and lasses who code for a relatively small start-up. You’re recently out of college, so you haven’t worked in a larger organization. This means you have not had to code under the auspices of a large process – quite the opposite: because there are so few of you, y’all are frontierfolk, coding in the wild wild west, gangnam-style garage-style.

You’re successful. Sales are up. So are profits. You’re making something cool, and you want to make more cool things, so you grow by hiring more coders. Your one team has grown to a handful. Because there are now more of you than the good ol’ garage days, general complexity has increased, so the founders of your start-up want to reduce some of the chaos by adding a little process.


You don’t like this.

We’ve been working fine without process. Now you want us to follow what? Scrum? What is this, rugby? Sales are up year over year. So are profits. What’s the problem? Don’t tell me what I can’t do!

You don’t like this one bit.

When folks in the software industry move from a big, rigid process to a small, Agile process, there are obviously increased freedoms. Heck, when folks talk about Scrum, they usually end up comparing it to the (more burdensome) status quo for software development. But you’ve been blessed.

Not blessed in a sense that you had an enviable upbringing – the software equivalent of parkour camp and paintballing and go kart racing and fueling all those adventures with home-made ice cream.

More blessed in a sense that you didn’t have a wretched upbringing – the software equivalent of… the beginning of most Roald Dahl stories.

Why do I have to use Scrum?

I was asked this not too long ago. And thusly I commenced my reply…

Hear ye, hear ye, oh ye crew-of-lads-and-lasses-who-code-for-a-relatively-small-start-up. I come bearing procedural gifts of enhanced freedoms and daily salvation.

…this was all I had in my Ye Olde Towne Crier pocket scroll. The ‘enhanced freedoms and daily salvation’ bit comes off as hyperbole, but now that my Sprints are 1 week instead of 2, I plan for less and actually get stuff accomplished, progress towards my life goals is measureable and tangible, and I feel I have a better handle on my path each day, where I’m better able to enjoy the journey, in the mirror I see a relaxed and happier face. And I’m a believer.

I told the crew that, off the bat, nobody has to do anything. There’s gotta be buy-in from the team, and that’s because the benefits and costs are explained and understood. Now, the costs are a lot easier to see – the regular meetings, breaking down tasks to a smaller-than-comfortable level, the brighter spotlight – and if this is all you see, and all you experience, then of course it’s gonna suck.

Those regular meetings are… constant, sure, but they’re tiny – 15 minutes a day – and they’re meant to be the only meetings, so no distractions from outside the team. Those smaller tasks are… smaller, sure, and that’s so you get feedback more often and you know the stuff you’re working on is going in the right direction – you’re not wasting your time. The spotlight is… brighter, sure, and that’s so stuff stopping or slowing you down can be found and addressed sooner – it’s not to micro-manage.

And that’s a decent point – it can seem micro-manage-y, but only if there isn’t an accompanying attitude of self-management.

Along with the processes that are so well advertised should be an ability for folks outside the team to truely trust the team to do what they do best. This is the part of Scrum that isn’t easy, but it’s worth it. After all…

You’re making something cool.