Shu-Ha-Ri: the Stages of Learning to Mastery

Alistair Cockburn, one of the initiators of the agile movement in software development, introduced this concept of learning in his book “Agile Software Development.”

The concept of “Shu Ha Ri”, is a Japanese martial arts concept that applies to the practice of learning, from beginner to the level of mastery. He wrote about three levels of practice: learn, detach, transcend and how we can apply them to our learning experiences.

Shu-Ha-Ri is a way to think about the levels of learning that we progress through as we gain knowledge about something.   The idea is that as in order for a person to master something they need to pass through three stages of growth.

  • Shu: This is the beginning stage of learning where we follow and mimic the steps of others.    They focus on doing the task with knowing or worrying about the “why”.  This is a period of coping without adaption.
  • Ha: The intermediate stage is the point the we begin to branch out. We gain knowledge of the “why” and start integrating what we have learned into our practice.
  • Ri:  The mastery stage is a stage of continuation.   We aren’t  learning from other people anymore. We are learning from own experience and practice. We are able to adapt what we learn to their own experiences and circumstances.   This is also referred to as a state of flow, around some particular practice.

In my experience, I found this to be a true path when learning most anything.  First we start out by imitating and following, and then we move on to fluent mastery.

For example, a child learning to talk imitates the words other people in their lives are speaking not really fully knowing the meaning.   But then learning happens and the child begins to associate the word with real meaning, even though they only know how to use those words in a limited context.    Then more leaning happens (mastery) as the child begins to take the words they know and apply them to other contexts as they experience them.shu-ha-ri

However, I find myself at many different levels of learning for on a variety of differ things.    I can be a “Shu” on one practice, and “Ha” and “Ri” at others.   By the way, I feel like I have more “Ha” practices and very few “Ri” practices.

I am defiantly in the “Shu” stage on my golf game.  Just following the steps of my instructor, but still not really understanding the why’s of things like technique, club # , and such.  As compared to Roy Mcllroy’s performance at the U.S. Open, which undoubtedly classifies his practice as “Ri” (mastery).  (I don’t normally watch golf, but that was an exciting game!)

I will mostly likely never be a “Ri” at golf, so you might not want to pair up with me on the course if you’re looking to win.   But I am striving to get to “Ri” in my knowledge of other practices, such as team building, agile development, and intrinsic thinking.

So where do you find self in “Shu Ha Ri”?

You can find out more about this in Alistair’s book: Agile Software Development.

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