Agile and mastery and I don’t know what I don’t know

In the CfA fellowship program we’ve been having a bit of back and forth about Agile.

Some folks have (different levels of) practical experience with Agile, while others have learnt the standard Scrum rituals only, so far and perhaps see this as the sum total of the Agile practice. They are also fairly confident to give advice to others about the practice.

I’ve been reflecting on what is going on here, and why I am cautious about this. As one of the folks with a bit of Agile experience (I’d put myself in the Ha stage – see below) I’m not always confident to offer advice on the Agile practice. I’d like to explain a little bit about why, now that I’ve thought this through.

I was lucky enough to see a talk by Alistair Cockburn a couple of years ago called “Rediscovering The Heart of Agile“. It’s a great talk that touches on the core tenets of Agile and removes the complication of process and technique we can sometimes become enmeshed in while we’re “building the thing”.

In particular Alistair’s explanation of the stages of mastery,¬†Shu Ha Ri, is relevant:

Shuhari¬†roughly translates to “first learn, then detach, and finally transcend”.”

Shu – obey (learn the fundamentals from a master)
Ha – detach (break with tradition, test boundaries, reinterpret)
Ri – transcendence (all moves become natural, knowledge is tacit).

A similar conceptual model is Henry Dreyfuss’ skills acquisition model for adults. This is a model I am familiar with, and have found useful when designing products for adult learning.

In cases where you are designing for people with little or no experience, direct instruction can be more “fair” than asking folks what they want to know and responding to their suggestions. While the learners themselves would not describe themselves as novices in some cases, and in some cases we as designers do not make this categorisation of their skills apparent, they receive direct instruction that helps move them from Shu through to Ha and beyond.

While self-determination and collaboration in self-organising teams are important principles, sometimes it is more wise to understand where our colleagues are in terms of their learning/mastery journey, and adapt and support accordingly. Unfortunately, on a surface level, this can be read by the novice as “unfair”.

I hope by explaining the core concepts around mastery that my position may be more clear.

And as a postscript, this is always a good graph to refer back when you’re either:

  • Feeling like you know everything, or
  • You’re feeling like you know not much at all.



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