Shu-Ha-Ri of Skill Mastery

Shu: Obey the rule – shu means “to keep, protect or maintain.”

Ha: Consciously moving away from the rules.- ha means “to break free”

Ri: Unconsciously finding an individual path – ri means “to go beyond or transcend”

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What es Shu-Ha-Ri?

Shuhari is a Japanese concept which details the cycle of the progress of a student in a martial art under ideal circumstances. This idea was originally presented in Tea Mastery, extended to Noh Dance (almost four centuries ago), later spread out in martial arts like aikido (in the early 1900s) and Kempo and nowadays reached out scientific or professional areas… even software engineering specifically agile development.

What is the meaning of Shu-Ha-Ri?

In Japanese, there are three types of writing: katakana, which is an “alphabet” for writing foreign words taken to Japanese; hiragana, which is typically Japanese, the most common and commonly used for any Japanese word. Kanji are ideograms from Chinese, in simple terms is a symbol representing an idea or object.

Shu-Ha-Ri, it is a word made with kanji, and for that reason it can be broken down into its component parts.

Shu: In this beginning stage the student follows the teachings of one master precisely. He concentrates 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, he concentrates on just the one way his master teaches him. No excuses, no exceptions.

Ha: At this point, the student begins to branch out. With the basic practices working he now starts to learn the underlying principles and theory behind the technique. He also starts learning from other masters and integrates that learning into his practice. You don’t sweat every little ceremony. 

Ri: The student stops learning from others but from his own practice. He creates his own approaches and adapts what he’s learned to his own particular circumstances. You don’t think about the rules anymore; instead, you just build awesome things.

What is the idea behind this concept?

The fundamental idea here is that when someone learn an art, first need to completely understand the reason why behind each concept and idea, follow each ceremony and step required and later when he/she dominate the art and the way to do the things are completely ingrained, just in that moment, the student could stop to imitate others and avoid the strict adherence to the path laid, starting to develop his/her personal way to do the things.

Early stages of learning focus on concrete steps to imitate, (as long as the student advances in the domain of discipline) the focus shifts to understanding principles to self-directed innovation.

How it is applied to software development?

This concept was introduced by Alistair Cockburn first via his blog ( and later in his book  after that, it spread out in agile development.

In general terms, the idea is to deeply understand the methodology first and later tailoring the process. A practical implementation of Shuhari in agile development happen when a team is new and want to implement an agile process. The best moment to tailor something is after several uses of the basic and complete methodology just out of the box, without any change, and later when the team has a real comprehension about the reason why behind each process and ceremony, just in that moment the team could create their own variations.



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