Soundbyte 209: Willin’ to learn


The most fun part of getting older is that your experiences allows you to see the lessons you’ve learned years ago in a total different perspective. I find it exhilarating when I remember wise words from a teacher or friend years after the fact in another context. When it allows me to perceive a situation in a refreshing new way.

The reverse is also true and earlier experiences can get in the way when you learn something new. It makes it a bit treacherous because you are still unconsciously incompetent and might learn the wrong lessons. I hate it when I have to go through that, because by definition one can never know when being unaware of his own incompetence. So I am always on the lookout and sometimes just plain paranoid. But I love it when I passed that initial phase and I really learn something new.

One of the earlier lessons I remembered this week is Shu Ha Ri. It originates from Japanese martial art and describes the cycle of stages to master a new skill. When starting in Shu, one should perform the techique as purely as possible mostly by repetitive practice to thoroughly train the muscle memory. In Ha, a student learns to understand the underlying principles and knowledge. I would summarize it as understanding the ‘why’. (Please note that I think I am still in Shu when it comes to applying Shu Ha Ri) Ri is when you have enough experience and practice to learn by yourself and make your own decisions on how and when to apply certain practices.

The first I heard about Shu Ha Ri was from Jeff Sutherland. He used it to describe the phases team should go through when adopting and mastering Scrum. When in Shu for example, a Scrum team should start by precisely following the Scrum guide, have a clear velocity and use the retrospective meetings to enhance the team’s performance. When that’s set, you can try to introduce your own variations. But when you introduce changes too soon, you might introduce unintended side effects, like I noticed this week.

Usually at the end of a sprint a team delivers the work during the sprint review. The outcome is used during the retrospective and sprint planning of the following sprint. This team however, decided at the beginning of the project to turn it around and first do a retrospective, followed by the planning and finish in the afternoon with a sprint demo of the closed sprint. However, the outcome of the sprint review will impact the sprint backlog, which was already formed during the planning session and the team starts with an incomplete overview of what they are going to do that sprint.

The reason they gave for changing the order was because one team member used to do it like that in a previous team and worked out very well for them. However, that team were far more experienced with Scrum and their sprint review was done in a totally different manner. The demo was merely used to show their progress to stakeholders. What the new team did not fully understand was that there can be a difference between a sprint demo and a sprint review. They deviated from the Scrum guide too early and were unaware that in doing so, they introduced some counterproductive effects. That is when I remembered the story from Jeff. The team acted as as in Ha phase before mastering the primary skills of Shu.

In reality it is very difficult to follow a linear approach of Shu Ha Ri when learning. Especially within a company. There is usually lots of legacy, lack of time or resources. I can not burst in on my first day of a project that is already on the way, telling people how to do their work and follow ‘the’ instructions to the letter like some ruthless Aikido master! (Although I like the sound of that) Stating someone is unknowingly incompetent is usually not welcomed and mostly met with resistance and anger. It requires patience, trust and respect for the work already done. Even if I would have done it entirely different or might think their customs are foolish. I can not possibly know every detail and nuance of their reasoning after just one day.

Learning is messy, unexpected but all the more rewarding. A little paranoia will help you out sometimes, but there is one thing I can never undervalue. It brings me to the song for this week. Be aware, it might be a bit corny, but that’s my upcoming wedding to blame. Don’t let it scare you off, because it is still Tower Of Power. Heads phone on and you will definitely appreciate that that trumpet solo!