Embracing Shu Ha Ri in Product Development

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Reflecting on my journey of growth and learning in the startup world, I’m reminded of the powerful framework, that is also one of our core principles at Rutabaga, of Shu Ha Ri.

First, let’s have ChatGPT define Shu Ha Ri for us: 

Shu Ha Ri (often written as “Shuhari”) is a concept in martial arts that describes the stages of learning to mastery. It is a Japanese martial art philosophy but has been adopted in various fields, particularly in agile software development and other disciplines. Here’s a breakdown of the three stages:

Shu (守, “obey,” “protect”): In this initial stage, the student closely follows the teachings of one master or the specific teachings of a particular school. The emphasis is on replicating the forms and techniques as taught, without modification and without yet attempting to understand the underlying rationale.

Ha (破, “detach,” “digress”): At this intermediate stage, the student begins to branch out. With the basics mastered, they are now encouraged to question the teachings and explore other possibilities. This stage involves a deeper understanding of the art, leading to a more creative and investigative approach.

Ri (離, “leave,” “separate”): This is the stage of mastery. The student no longer needs to consciously think about the teachings. They have internalized the skills and knowledge to the point where they can depart from the rigid frameworks and rules of their teachers. Here, the student innovates, often developing their own style and possibly new techniques or expressions of the art.

In a broader sense, Shu Ha Ri can be seen as a path from learning and imitating, through understanding and innovating, to finally transcending the forms and teachings to create something uniquely one’s own. It’s a useful framework for understanding the process of learning and mastery in many disciplines beyond martial arts.

Thanks, ChatGPT!

In so many aspects of the startup world, I was out of my depth, over my skis, and I needed to learn fast. This was me in full ‘Shu’ mode. I was all about learning the ropes – adhering to established methodologies and best practices to build competence and “muscle memory.” Paint-by-numbers. Over the past nine months, this approach has been pivotal in my immersion into new areas and aspects of the startup journey. Adhering to structured, rule-based learning has laid a solid foundation for my growth in these uncharted territories.

As my familiarity with these new domains in the startup world has increased, I made a successful transition to ‘Ha’ in multiple areas. This stage is marked by creative exploration and beginning to challenge the norms – a critical step towards mastery of a variety of skills. It’s when the training wheels come off.  It’s where personalization and experimentation began to shape my unique approach.

I am still seeking ‘Ri’ in the majority of new skills I’ve been developing. I’m a fast learner, but not that fast. But I know I’ll get there, because I’ve done it before. One example that comes to mind is my path in user research. Starting with ‘Shu’, I embraced established methodologies, leaning heavily on Kim Goodwin’s Designing for the Digital Age: How to Create Human-Centered Products and Services.  Progressing to ‘Ha’, I explored diverse strategies and innovative methods modifying existing approaches to better map to the objectives of a given project. Reaching ‘Ri’, I started to create my own brand of research, creating new approaches to uncover user and customer needs. This evolution in my career is a testament to the power of mastering skills through the Shu Ha Ri framework and inspires my current pursuits at Rutabaga.

Shu Ha Ri is more than a learning methodology; it’s a philosophy that fosters continuous growth, innovation, and leadership in the tech industry. This past year’s journey has been a testament to the relentless pursuit of mastery. As we step into another year, I am excited to continue this quest, embracing new challenges and opportunities at Rutabaga.

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