Martial Artists

Is Scrum a Roadblock to Agile Transformation?

What martial arts can teach us about agile maturity

Agile frameworks aim to put structure around living out the values and principles of Agile as defined by the Agile Manifesto. However, is it possible that Scrum is unwittingly hindering your Agile transformation? It’s heresy, I know, but hear me out.

When I wrote the book, Pursuing Timeless Agility: the Path to Lasting Agile Transformation, I addressed an observation, backed by data from the 12th Annual State of Agile Report, that what many were calling Agile is not Agile. My claim was that Agile was misunderstood and misapplied, keeping true organizational agility out of reach. As good as Scrum has been for advancing the Agile movement, is it possible that Scrum is contributing to this dilemma?

“So that’s our current battle…it’s realizing that a lot of what people are doing and calling agile, just isn’t.”
– Martin Fowler, co-author, Agile Manifesto

Common Goals, Many Variations

Scrum, Scaled Agile Framework, Kanban, Kung Fu, Aikido, and Tai Chi all exist to serve a common purpose. The Agile frameworks exist to deliver software better and the martial arts exist, historically and primarily, for self-defense. Given these common goals, why are there so many styles or methods? Variations exist to fill the gaps.

I will never forget the time I paired up with Sensei Sakamoto of the Northern Virginia Aikikai. No matter how hard I tried to “get him,” I always ended up on the ground. I got back up and tried again. After several minutes, out of breath, and sweating profusely, I realized that this much older man was not even breathing heavy. It seemed like he was doing very little to deflect my attacks, and it was true. There was no need for him to punch or kick me for I was wearing myself out in futility. That experience was humbling and demonstrated what I needed to aspire to.

Pure Aikido lacks any punching or kicking tactics. The goal is to deflect attackers, not be an attacker. However, when I was taught where strikes could be made, I was learning a variation to the practice. As awesome as Aikido is, adding elements of other styles helped to fill the gaps. This happens in our teams as well. For example, concepts from Kanban are often mixed in with the practice of Scrum — to fill some gaps.

It is this idea of filling the gaps that breeds new martial arts styles — it bred the popularity of mixed martial arts (MMA). Aikido itself was created as a combination of theory and technique derived from other arts — to fill the gaps. Many practices are borrowed, some revised, and others created new. While teams may blend other practices with Scrum, Scrum itself is also a blend of what came before it. With thousands of years of history behind us, we learn that this combat and self-defense mindset of martial arts remained constant while the methods to achieve it changed. In other words, the mindset transcended the methodology.

Agile frameworks have much less history to demonstrate the same pattern, but thus far we have seen new frameworks evolve from older ideas and existing frameworks are evolving to stay relevant, all with the intent of providing better ways to live out Agile. The goal is the same while the methods change.

What does all this mean? The principles for how we should work are good to follow regardless of the framework.

What the Path to Maturity Looks Like

Bruce Lee was arguably the best martial artist of his time. Like us, Bruce started out learning a defined method. By doing something prescribed and controlled, he learned the mindset behind the art. But he eventually realized that he needed more flexibility, which only came from separating from structured forms and incorporating other forms into this practice. He focused foremost on what problems he needed to solve and created ways to solve them as efficiently as possible by borrowing, modifying, and creating his own practices. This is why today’s best fighters are MMA. That is the Ri stage of Shu-Ha-Ri.

Shu-Ha-Ri is a Japanese concept for stages of learning often used to explain Agile maturity. I think it’s often used incorrectly, so here’s my take using the Agile and martial arts comparison.

Shu is the stage where you learn from a teacher how to do something and you perform it exactly as instructed, in a very controlled manner, in order to learn the movements. If you liken this to martial arts, it’s learning very static holds and situations in order to learn how to perform a move and to feel the resistance from your attacker.

When I practiced Aikido, I was told early on that moving out of the line of attack was the most important thing I could do, even if I never was able to perform a counter move. As a newbie, moving in such a way was not something I naturally did and thus I was not able to protect myself from attack because I was more focused on counter movements than simply avoiding attack. I learned to feel where energy and resistance is in slow, static movements so that I learned how to move out of the line of attack in a controlled manner.

In the case of Scrum, practitioners learn early on that one of the primary objectives is to work in smaller increments. They learn fairly simple practices such as user story splitting, Sprint Planning, Sprint Reviews, and Retrospectives. In the Shu stage, practitioners are not thinking too much about why or what the theories are beyond the art, they are merely learning how to perform the motions under ideal, or controlled, situations. This is exactly what it is like when Scrum is introduced to a team — they will do things aligned with Agile values and principles, perhaps without realizing it, but certainly will not yet be Agile.

Ha is the stage where you learn more about the whys and pick up on some theories such that you are able to make minor modifications to your movements, or practices, in order to adapt to non-textbook situations. Liken this to the martial arts where you go from static starting points to moving attacks that you learn to deal with.

Continuing with my Aikido example, this reminds me of a time when my sensei lined me up facing three attackers. It was a testing day for me, so I thought I would be dealing with each one individually, performing moves the sensei would tell me to demonstrate in a fairly slow-moving controlled situation. When he said, “go get him,” I was immediately in a situation where I had to react to multiple attackers at once — something I had not yet done. This reminds me of the concept of “anything worth doing is worth doing poorly.” I may have performed one or two moves well enough, but I mostly spent my time just staying out of the line of attack — not really having the opportunity to counter. My what and why were aligned with the ultimate objective, to protect myself, but my how, my execution of the movements, was all over the place. I was still following what I learned, but I had to figure out that some slight modifications were needed, no matter how poorly executed, to make it work now that the situation was a little more fluid.

Similarly in Scrum practice, something presents that is not textbook, or as learned. The practitioner adjusts slightly while maintaining what they learned and within the framework. Working in smaller increments is a key objective. The practitioner is now able to evaluate the practices and modify as necessary to fit the team or situation. Perhaps the organization is throwing high-priority changes at the team rapidly. The practitioner realizes that meeting once a month for Sprint Planning is not effective to keep pace, so the frequency is moved to every other week for a shorter duration.

The Ha stage is also where you may learn from other teachers, and pick up on some of those variations. You may understand Agile values and principles better now and use that understanding to modify your practices. For example, teams often find that incorporating some Kanban principles works best for the team.

Ri is the stage where you now understand the values and principles of Agile well enough that you no longer follow specific teachers or practices exactly as taught. In fact, those named frameworks are limit and constrain your team. In the Ri stage, you are fully capable of implementing your own practices, your own movements, to deal with your unique environment and situations. You may continue to use some practices learned earlier, modify others, but likely do things in a way that has no name of its own. It’s a hybrid, if you will, or an altogether new way. But the key here is that everything you do in the Ri stage aligns perfectly with the underlying values and principles of Agile.

A team in the Ri stage is not following any specific framework or methodology. Existing methodologies could fade away and a team in the Ri stage would be just fine because everything they do will always align with the values and principles they embody. In other words, mindset transcends methodology.

Some suggest that Shu-Ha-Ri is like the belt system in Karate, mastering as you go. Thus, as you master Scrum, you move through Shu-Ha-Ri. Not true. Shu-Ha-Ri is not about mastering your framework; it is about outgrowing where you started and not being tied to any particular methodology for the sake of mastering one.

Ri is about taking the best from other styles and combining them with your own versions and creations to suit your unique situation. For example, Aikido combined Judo, Kendo, and JuJitsu. Bruce Lee created Jeet Kune Do having started with Wing Chun (a Kung Fu style) and was influenced by many fighting styles. Having something to model and learn from is not bad — not giving yourself the freedom to adapt and move beyond it is.

Do You Have the Right “Why?”

We hinder our Agile transformation when perfection in framework execution becomes the goal rather than embodying the intent behind it. The focus starts with doing structured practices and never grows beyond that. This strict adherence mentality is keeping organizations from doing what actually matters, what actually works best for them. Shu-Ha-Ri does not apply to Scrum, Kanban, or any other framework. It applies to Agile because the Ri stage is methodology independent.

“The problem isn’t that Scrum isn’t agile, though it isn’t. The problem might be that you’re not using it in an Agile fashion.” — Ron Jeffries, co-author, Agile Manifesto.

I believe if you can focus your organization more on the why, more on the problem that needs solved, more on internalizing the values and principles of Agile, you can avoid the common pitfalls that are plaguing Agile transformation everywhere.

One final martial arts analogy, I promise.

Some people practice Tai Chi for the health and exercise benefits. It provides that for sure. But if one goes into Tai Chi solely focused on the exercise and flexibility benefits, that is all they will get out of it. It’s an incomplete understanding with limited benefit. In fact, with this focus, with this why, one will not be able to defend themselves well using Tai Chi because it isn’t practiced with self-defense in mind. On the other hand, if one practices Tai Chi with self-defense as the objective, the reason why they practice Tai Chi, then they will get the health and exercise benefits automatically as a byproduct.

The same thing happens with Agile frameworks and practices. Why do you want Agile? Why are you choosing the practices you choose? Many will pursue something like Scrum for the promise of delivering more in less time. As a result, everything they focus on is about productivity. The same measures of success are carried into new ways of working. Agile methods are employed, but the measures of success, the whys, haven’t changed. So, like Tai Chi, the primary benefits of Agile are never realized when the primary purpose of the art is not the focus. Your methods will always align with your why. In order for what you do to be Agile, your why must align with what Agile intends to achieve.

In Conclusion

In the debate over how we need to “be” Agile vs. “do” Agile, there is a valid argument that one cannot be Agile without first doing Agile things. No one reaches the Ri stage without going through the Shu and Ha stages. I believe that is absolutely true. However, going through Shu-Ha is no guarantee that one will ever reach Ri. In fact, this is one of the practice’s biggest challenges today — not enough focus on moving beyond Shu-Ha and into Ri. Just as a practitioner skilled in only one martial art is at a disadvantage to a MMA fighter, so is someone only skilled in the practices of one Agile framework.

Scrum is a great place to start learning how to live out the values and principles of Agile thinking. The argument can be made that Scrum helps teams learn how to work differently by providing a consistent cadence and methodology to what they do. I cannot disagree with that. Aikido was a great foundation for me to develop my mindset and movements, but isn’t designed for all situations I may find myself in. For some teams and some types of work, Scrum by-the-book may actually be the ideal long-term approach. But for the majority of teams and organizations, looking at Scrum as the one-size-fits-all approach to all work across all teams actually hinders Agile transformation.

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