When one decides to learn a new skill, being a master at it doesn’t happen overnight. A learning process occurs as the individual immerses himself in the practice of the skill.
Imagine you’re learning to play the guitar. Your teacher guides you through the basics – how to properly hold your guitar, how to play the basic chords, how to strum your strings, and so on. With more practice, you are now able to play songs with more advanced chords and arrangements. You even try to deviate from the way your teacher taught you how to strum your guitar. Also, you can now pluck your guitar strings with ease. You’ve added your own flavor to your jam. After tons of practice, you are now able to compose your own music and train others to play the instrument. You’ve advanced from being a novice to becoming a master.
Did it happen in an instant? Certainly not!
The key to advancement in learning is PRACTICE.
You focus first on learning the basics, then gradually making it your own through consistency and dedication. A consistent application and execution of the skill enable learning to become muscle memory. As the learner becomes proficient, he starts to deviate from the norm and molds the skill to be his own distinct craft.
This doesn’t only apply to learn how to play an instrument. In fact, it is true of any learning context.
There is actually a concept that coins this learning process perfectly and is being used in knowledge work and business.
Shuhari is a Japanese martial arts (Aikido) concept that describes the progression of training or learning.
Aikido master Endō Seishirō Shihan explains the concept as follows:
“It is known that, when we learn or train in something, we pass through the stages of shu, ha, and ri. These stages are explained as follows. In shu, we repeat the forms and discipline ourselves so that our bodies absorb the forms that our forebears created. We remain faithful to these forms with no deviation. Next, in the stage of ha, once we have disciplined ourselves to acquire the forms and movements, we make innovations. In this process, the forms may be broken and discarded. Finally, in ri, we completely depart from the forms, open the door to creative technique, and arrive in a place where we act in accordance with what our heart/mind desires, unhindered while not overstepping laws.”
Shu, ha, and ri are the different stages of learning. The idea is that each person who embarks the journey of new learning will pass through these three stages in order to become a master or expert.
To explain further, let us look at the characteristics of a student at each stage of the learning process.
Shu: In this beginning stage, the student follows the teachings of one master precisely. They concentrate on how to do the task, without worrying too much about the underlying theory. If there are multiple variations on how to do the task, the student concentrates on just the one way their master teaches them.
Ha: The student has now reached a level where all the rules are well known and it’s possible to break them when necessary. The student is also able to teach other learners, discuss the topic and improve the discipline itself. This is when the rules are questioned and the reason for their existence is put into the spotlight.
Ri: The student becomes a practitioner at this stage, and is learning from their experiences rather than only from others. They create approaches and methods of their own and adapts what they have learned to their own particular circumstances.
This simple but powerful concept can be seen in any learning context whether it be in one’s personal life or the workplace.
Shuhari in the Workplace
There are various instances where we can see Shuhari in action in our organizations. We see this in employee levels where certain designations signify the level of proficiency or expertise of a worker. We see Shuhari in all areas where an employee learns and masters personal and technical skills.
Companies would usually have learning and development initiatives for its employees. These are often geared towards equipping their employees to do their jobs better. The learning process that employees go through is very much like a Shuhari experience.
Let’s take an example of an employee who undergoes Scrum Master training and certification. The employee probably goes through a formal training to learn the basics and rules of Scrum. After the training, the employee passes the exam in order to get officially certified.
Welcome, new Scrum Master, to the Shu level of learning!
Scrum Masters at this level usually play by the book. It is in this stage that they try to fight their command and control nature, and abide by the rules of Scrum. This manifests in the way the Scrum Master shapes the Scrum practice of their team. They ensure that the team has the Daily Scrum and maintains the 15-minute time frame. They ensure meetings are scheduled and are executed. The Scrum Master ensures that the team doesn’t extend their sprint in order to get things done. The Scrum Master establishes an understanding of Scrum not only for themselves but for the entire team. With this, the process is set in place in order for the team to find their rhythm through the process.
In the Shu stage, Scrum Masters are more focused on the proper execution of the Scrum rules and framework.
With further experience and immersion, the Scrum Master then enters the Ha stage. It is at this stage that the Scrum Master feels more confident about their practice. Not only have they established a solid understanding and practice of Scrum, they are also now more intentional and aware of the whys and hows of applying its concepts and rules. There may be instances where they try to bend some rules in an effort to fit it in the context of the team or the organization, without sacrificing the foundational principles of Scrum and Agile. They focus on gearing teams towards total productivity through the exercising the Scrum practice. A Scrum Master in this stage also seeks to acquire further learning of Scrum and Agile concepts. They participate in discussions with other Scrum practitioners in an effort to hone their expertise. The Scrum Master’s proficiency is manifested through their team’s results; the consistent delivery of done product increments, and a highly engaged, self-organizing team.
A Scrum Master in the Ri stage is one that is rich in knowledge and exposure that they are able to prophesize the methodology within the organization. They have a consistent track record of helping teams reach “hyperproductivity”, as Jeff Sutherland puts it. They are active in Scrum and Agile coaching circles and even pursues higher levels of certification. With their level of expertise, a Scrum Master in the Ri stage is able to coach and train budding Scrum Masters.
Shuhari and Continuous Improvement
When we think of Shuhari, we picture a natural course of progression. And in order to progress, a continuous improvement mindset is essential.
The transition from stage to stage doesn’t happen in an instant. Often, learners would assume they are already masters of their craft after attending a workshop or having been awarded a certification. But in reality, certification is just on paper and they are just starting out to live the through experiencing their craft. It is very important to be self-aware of one’s level of proficiency in order to recognize where to improve.
Learning is not confined to individuals. Teams and even organizations at the wider level embark on learning journeys as well. When teams and organizations decide to adopt new frameworks or methodologies, they also go through the 3 stages of learning. In this instance, it is vital that change management and a framework for continuous learning and improvement are in place.
Kaizen, another Japanese concept that has been widely applied in business and knowledge work, is a concept of continuous and incremental improvement. Organizations are advised to embark on Kaizen initiatives or employ other models for continuous process improvement in order to advance the mastery of their work practices and methods.
When going through any type of change and learning, it is important that individuals and the entire organization maintain the discipline in applying the correct form of whatever it is they are trying to master. It is important that there is that recognition that they would have to go through incremental progression or Shuhari instead of forcing to become masters overnight. Once competency is built, they will then be able to experiment and mold the practice into one that is truly effective for their context.