Last updated on | Agile Coaching/Team Coaching

Shu Ha Ri Agile A Fantastic Tool For Agile Coaches

by Luís Gonçalves
Shu Ha Ri agile


Hi, this week I want to introduce you an old Japanese martial art concept that describes the stages of learning to mastery – Shu ha ri Agile.

Shu ha ri is roughly translated to “first learn, then detach, and finally, transcend.” I got familiar with this concept during training I took with Lyssa Adkins. In this post, I want to present this concept applied to agile teams and use it as a tool to help agile coaches to identify in which stage their teams are.

As an Agile Coach, you must understand in which stage your team is to help the team to perform in the more efficient way. As Lyssa said, if people in a team are in the “Shu” phase they are quite immature in agile, and they just follow the rules.

If they are more mature, they will be in the “Ha”, where they can break the rules safely. The last stage is the “Ri” phase where people are so mature that they can create their rules. Below I will show you some behaviors that help you to see where the team is on the Shu Ha Ri scale.

Lyssa Adkins points different examples to check in which level a team is.

Shu level

Is the team new to Agile or to one another? Has the team changed or dropped agile practices and lost the intention behind them? Have they mashed up Agile with something else so that their practices are not even clear to them? Do they look at you cockeyed when you bring up the agile manifesto?

If any of these are true, the team may have progressed to Ha too early. They are truly at Shu and need you to guide them to practice at Shu.

Ha level

Does the team live by ideals in the agile manifesto? In all they do, do they stand on the side of individuals and interactions, working software, customer collaboration, and responding to change? Do they have the basic practices working well and producing new insights that let them improve each sprint? Do they pause – really pause – to consider the ramifications before they alter, drop, or add an agile practice? Do they face the consequences of these changes squarely?

If these are true, your team is at Ha and needs you to coach them to a deeper expression of Agile.

Ri level

Has the team altered their practice of Agile and done so consciously, keeping the values and the principles of Agile alive? Have they broken through walls of dysfunction in their company so that their practice of Agile leads to progressively better and faster delivery and higher satisfaction? Have they imbibed the skills and mind-sets necessary to be truly self-monitoring and self-correcting?

If these are true, the team is at Ri and needs you to let them go.

As you can imagine all the different levels require different coaching styles, below, you can find the various coaching styles.

Teaching – A the name shows, at this stage you must teach the rules. The teams that are at this level they have a basic knowledge of agile values/principles/practices. They need to have someone to guide them. Examples from Lyssa Adkins:

  • “Follow these rules. I have followed them before, and I know they will give you what you want. So, for now, just follow.”
  • “The rules work. Anything else is an impediment.”
  • “Everything you could need is right here, in this simple framework, so look here for your answers first.”
  • “Here is how this works.”

Coaching – Is the next step. Here, teams have a good understanding of agile values/principles/practices, they start to interiorise them from their past experiences. They start to understand how they can use different approaches to achieve the same result.

At this stage, teams can come up with their solutions; they just need a coach to help them finding different ways to achieve what they need. Examples from Lyssa Adkins:

  • “Why does this way of working work?”
  • “What kills it? What renews it? What feeds it?”

Advising – The last stage. In this stage, the team has fully internalized the values, principles, and practices. Everything runs quite well, the role of the coach works as an advisor. For example:

  • “May I offer an observation?”
  • “That could work. Try it.”
  • “I do not know. What do you think?”

One important thing, each successive stage contains the others. For example, if a team is in “Ha”, but you want to introduce a new practice or idea, remember to use a “teaching” approach because they are new to that practice so that they will be in Shu for that idea.

This is important because most probably you will be changing coaching styles depending on the practice or idea that you want to feed into the team.

Do you think it will help you? Leave a comment below.

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Luís Gonçalves

About Luís Gonçalves

Luis Gonçalves is an Entrepreneur, Author & International Keynote Speaker that works exclusively with Senior Executives of 7 to 8 figure businesses on the deployment of his game changing ‘Organisational Mastery’ Methodology.


Share your point of view

  1. Hi Luis, always enjoying reading your blog ! I must say that I most of the time I always agree with what your are saying. As for myself, in Belgium, Agile is still to much unknown, most Agile coaches agree that we are 3 years behind comparing to other countries, so, every attempt to bring Agile in, is a hard think to do, following rules or not, Agile is considered the “cowboy” way, no decipline, no rules etc… That’s not my point of view of course, but that’s what living in a lot of companies. So when I bring Agile in somewhere, there is but one rule for me “Improvise, adapt and overcome”. I know, it’s the US marines maxime, but I always lived by that rule, I think it goes everywhere. So, as a remark to your blog, and even if it’s against the Agile manifesto, sometimes I break the rules with even an unexperienced team; it’s in peoples nature not willing to change things, so any “new” stuff should come in steps, I’m not talking about Agile only, if you are trying to introduce Prince2 with tons of rules in a company where there were very fews or no rules before, you’ll be happy not to be lynched !
    Sheers, Pascal

    1. Hi Pascal,

      Thank you for your nice answer :):). Its always nice to see that people enjoy my blog:). I know what you mean, myself I worked in a company that used waterfall for more than 20 years, change is something that is not easy. I am trying to get better with a framework called “non violent communication” this framework is fantastic to understand the needs of people and I guess that is the key for change. You must understand the need why people do not want to change after that you can work with them to fulfil their needs and help them to change… Its just my 5c thought 🙂

  2. Good post!
    I first found out about this in the “Lean Startup” book of Eric Ries ..and I really liked the idea.
    If you think deeper, it is quite intuitive, but one first need to get to the point of becoming aware of capabilities and of the reason behind actions…

  3. I’d add one thing to this post: The coach’s responsibility is to figure out which stage their teams are in. To try to use Coaching only on a Shu level team is a fast path to frustration, while trying to use Mentoring/Teaching with a Ha/Ri level team will lead to losing credibility.
    I’d add to this post that it is the Coach’s responsibility to check how the team reacts and adapt their stance based on that.
    Shu-Ha-Ri is a good metaphor for the evolution that teams go through, but the *coach* must follow that metaphor correctly if she is to help the teams.
    I hope you discuss this in the next post 😉

  4. Very interesting, please continue with this topic in your next post(s)!
    I am Product Owner and we are practising SCRUM now for about a year. What I notice is that the team starts struggling with how to proceed and improve themselves. Would be great if I can help and support them in this process.

  5. Recognition of regression is an important part as well. The Shuhari concept is very close to the Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing. The only reason I like that concept more is the recognition from the outset that teams will storm…sometimes for long periods. But the general lesson is the same from a coaching standpoint. There are differing levels of coaching required at each stage. Differing gotchas. A good coach will watch for those in order to be proactive to them as opposed to reactive. I will say Shuhari sounds cooler though!

  6. As far as I know Shu Ha Ri is a concept from Aikido-Master Seishiro Endo. With his concept of Shu Ha Ri he talks about “learning skills”. If you’re new to soccer you have lots of space to try things out by yourself but if you have a trainer to learn how things work better he tells you what to do to learn things and you will do it. No one who’s new to a sport tells his trainer why it’s better to do things in a different way.

    If you just look at the idea to learn “skills” and not to learn “following processes and tools” it gets a bit clearer maybe. I would say: if a team is new to agile ideas, than “frameworks” like scrum could be helpfull as a rulesets to learn your skills to work in a different environment a better way. And the coach (who should be in a Ri-Level) should be able to see when it’s the right way for the team to follow rules and when it’s okay to break them. And when the team learned the skills, it goes to Ha and to Ri.

    It’s not about learning Scrum (for example), it’s about learning skills to work in an “agile way” and this way could be Scrum.

    My thoughts about Sh Ha Ri (unfortunately all in German):

    1. Hi Daniel,

      Like always great feedback 🙂 I agree with you… I wrote this some time ago and yes I agree with you its not just about Scrum but about Agile 🙂 Fully agree with you 🙂

      I really like your feedback and comments, are you planning any trip to Munich during the next weeks? I might need to go to Stuttgart tho…


  7. Hi Luis,
    This article landed at a serendipitous time when I’m taking over and existing team and we are all in the learning phase.
    This really helped clarify some thoughts of my own on how best to progress with them.
    Thanks again,

  8. Luis,
    Great post. I’m a bit of ‘Budo nerd’ myself and particularly appreciate the lesson of Shu Ha Ri.

    Let me perhaps add some philosophical insight if I can.

    Established Scrum Masters might take note of this concept as it should manifest itself in a Scrum Master. Just as in the martial arts one doesn’t always know what they think they know until they are teaching. It follows then that teaching and coaching open is to failing and learning from those failings by holding personal retrospectives ;). And over time we begin to anticipate but verify the impediments of students and teams.