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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Shu Ha Ri

Shu Ha Ri.

What is Shu Ha Ri?

Shu Ha Ri is a Japanese term, usually applied to martial arts training, to describe the stages in learning a skill. The first word, "Shu", means "to obey". The second word, "Ha", means "to break free". The third word, "Ri", means "to depart".

These three words describe the three stages of learning. When you are a novice, just starting out on a new skill, you need clear, precise, unambiguous instructions. You do not understand the bigger picture or the intent for the instructions. Any further background only confuses you. You are at the "Shu" stage - "to obey". After a while, you begin to learn the instructions, and the question that comes up is "why?". Why am I following these rules this way? What is the intent behind them? You slowly start to understand the context behind these rules. At this point, you have broken free of the rules. You are at the "Ha" stage - "to break free". Finally, you become an expert. You not only know the rules and the reasons, but you are in a position to create your own rules. You no longer follow the old rules, but follow your rules, crafted by you, just for you. You are at the "Ri" stage - "to depart".

In a fascinating experiment, expert airline pilots were asked to prepare rules for novice pilots. The novice pilots followed the rules and had no problems with them. However, when the expert pilots were then asked to follow their own rules, they found that their performance fell sharply. This is because expert pilots do not usually fly planes the way described in the rules. Expert pilots rely a lot on experience and intuition and often break the very rules that they had prescribed. They use contextual decision making and rules leave very little room for this type of decision making. However, had novice pilots been asked to perform without the rules, they would not have been able to, because they lacked the experience and intuition. Rules are critical for novice pilots to fly a plane. That is Shu Ha Ri. What is good for the expert is often not so good for the novice and vice-versa.

This principle is particularly applicable to process, or software development process to be more precise, although it is equally applicable to any organizational process. The great big battle about whether we need processes or not is missing the point completely. Everyone follows a process in their head. Even no process is a process. The question is whether to follow a predefined process or an ad-hoc process where you just do whatever you are thinking of at that moment.

Let us apply the Shu-Ha-Ri principle at this point. Are you a novice at managing projects? In that case you need a clear, unambiguous process. If you have been in multiple project, then you need a less defined process, or apply your own process if you are an expert at project management. These leave room for the contextual decision making we talked about earlier. However, the reverse will simply not work. Leaving novices without a process, or imposing a rigid process on an expert are both doomed to fail right from the start.

So the point to take away from this is that the way novices and experts perform the same task is very different, and the guidance that they require is also very different. For all those grappling with the process question, think back again to Shu Ha Ri and see how it can help you.

See also: Dreyfus model of Skill Acquisition

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Brad said...

This works, except when you have several experts working together. Then they must follow some well defined rules and specifications, especially if they are used to working in different ways.

Venkatesh said...

Brilliant article