What do you keep in your Shu Box?

Alistair Cockburn uses the term Shu-Ha-Ri regularly to explain different levels of learning.
The literal translation is approximately Learn/Follow(Shu), Detach(Ha), Transcend(Ri). A number of people I’ve discussed this with equate these levels to the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition. In fact, the Wikipedia article on Dreyfus links back to Shu-Ha-Ri.
In my opinion, this is doing an injustice to both models, and my slightly different interpretation follows.

Driving an example

Take, for example, learning to drive. As I learn to drive, I progress through the Dreyfus model, becoming a novice, then competent, then with a lot of practice, an expert. However, having only learned one way to drive, I would still consider myself to be in the Shu box.

Riding my way to the top

When I learn to ride a motorbike, I can take a number of similar practices from my car experience and apply them to the similar practices in the motorbike world, but I still need to be taught new practices (particularly around observation and hazard avoidance). After a suitable period of tuition, I am now competent in riding a motorbike. I would still consider myself to be a Shu level rider though.

Mixing it up

Now, while driving my car, I suddenly realise that the heightened observation and hazard avoidance techniques, essential while riding, are actually pretty useful while driving. I begin to blend the two skills together. I’m still doing it as taught, but I can pick the practices that are most useful from each and blend them to create something new. This is where I start to become Ha level, taking the most useful practices from a number of techniques and blending them to create something useful in a given context.

Taking it to new heights

Next, I learn to fly a plane, bringing with it new observational practices and new disciplines (e.g. pre-flight checks). Becoming competent here, I can blend some of the practices from flying back into my driving and riding and vice-versa.
Soon I begin to notice a strange feeling. I’m doing all the right things in my practices, but there’s something that seems not quite right, something that could be made better. After some thinking, I identify the missing piece of context and synthesise an appropriate set of techniques for that situation. I have gone beyond the known contexts and identified a new situation, picked or synthesised the appropriate practices for that situation and resolved it. This is Ri level. Having identified this new context, I can teach it to my Shu level students.

But mum, I don’t want to ride a bike

Each of the situations described above are very relevant to me, but that is not to say that you have to ride a bike to progress to Ha or Ri in a car.
Other practices and contexts can be learned on the race track, taking a 4×4 course, rally driving or on a skid pan. Indeed, the beauty of Ha and Ri is that I may bring skills from a completely unrelated area (First Person Shooter, Knitting) and use them to improve my driving techniques.

Softening it up a bit

So, how can we apply this to software? There are a number of practices, techniques and methodologies (e.g. Kanban, Scrum, XP, Lean, Real Options). By the definition explained above, becoming in all of these makes me a Shu level practitioner in each of them.
If I identify a practice from, say, Kanban, that is useful in a context in a Scrum environment, then blending two or more Shu practices takes me to Ha.
When I come across a situation or context where there is no guidance (all of my Shu boxes are empty), then I need to create a new practice or technique. I use my knowledge of similar techniques from a number of methodologies and come up with something that fits the situation.

In Shu-mmary (sorry, summary)

In my interpretation of Shu-Ha-Ri, we have:

  • Shu (Learn) – Practice driven. We learn the practices by rote and apply them without understanding of the context.
    Shu practices are our tools, along with an instruction manual on how to use them in the situation they were created for. We can progress through Dreyfus model with each of our tools
  • Ha (Blend) – Context driven. Having learned a number of practices, and a number of contexts in which they are appropriate, we can pick or blend a number of different practices for any known context.
    Ha practices are using our Shu tools in situations that weren’t described in their manuals
  • Ri (Transcend) – Dealing with unknown context / identifying new practices. Coming across a brand new situation, we are able to identify an appropriate way of handling the situation.
    Ri practices are about creating new tools, either to handle a unique situation, or to handle an existing situation in a better way

I find that separating the Dreyfus model from the Shu-Ha-Ri model allows me to become an expert with each of my Shu tools without feeling that I should be able to apply them to unusual situations.
This is a useful way of thinking (to me at least). Rather than map Shu-Ha-Ri to the Dreyfus model, I choose to think of Shu-Ha-Ri as a skill in identifying contexts and tools.
You might want to discuss this with me some more in the comments 🙂

The Curious Case of the Missing Present

Imagine, if you will, a Santa’s grotto in a magical department store. Fresh faced children, still glowing from the snowfall outside, line up to greet the jolly man.
Joy and laughter can be heard throughout the crowd. Parents breathe a sigh of relief that their children are behaving well.
The amazing thing about this particular grotto is that whatever you ask Santa for, you receive as you leave. That’s one of the wonderful things about magic.

The first boy runs up to Santa, jumps on his knee, looks into his big jolly eyes, and asks for a train set. As he jumps down to leave, the elves hand him a big box, and inside is a train set that is just perfect.

The next child, a young girl, runs up to Santa, jumps on his knee, looks up and asks in a sweet voice for an iPod. As she jumps down to leave, the elves hand her a small box, and inside is the latest and greatest iPod.

The next child, another young boy, walks slowly up to Santa, climbs onto his knee, looks up and says in a thoughtful voice “I’m really not sure what I want for Christmas”. Santa smiles at him, the boy gets down and the elves hand him a box.
As the boy returns to his parents, they look inside the box… it’s empty.
The parents go absolutely crazy and start yelling. “WHY DID OUR BOY RECEIVE NOTHING? WE PAID THE SAME AMOUNT AS EVERYONE ELSE HERE!
The elves look shocked and say “Your boy did not know what he wanted, so we just gave him something that looked like a present but was actually nothing”
The parents reply “Surely there is a better solution than this! You could have sent him to the back of the line to think about what he wanted, or given him a gift voucher so that he could choose at his leisure later”
The elves answer, “Well, we could have done that, but this is easier, and it’s what all the other elves do. Maybe you should check to make sure that your boy knows what he wants and that he actually gets it in return”

I wonder if you will remember that poor disappointed boy next time you return null;

2009 Retrospective

Last year, I chose 5 goals. How did I manage with these?

Write more (this includes blogging and code)

I definitely wrote more code this year, especially early on in the year when Antony and I started Pair With Us. I feel that my blogging is probably around the same amount as previous years. Ideally I’d like to set a target of at least one blog post a week.

Present at one or more conferences

I presented at (what feels like) hundreds of conferences this year 🙂

Antony and I co-presented at Agile 2009 (Chicago), CITCON (Paris), Agile Development Practices (Orlando) and the SkillsMatter BDD Exchange (London)

We co-presented our tutorial at Oxford University as part of their Agile Methods Masters course

I also presented a keynote session at the Software Tester Forum (Zurich)

Help out with the jNarrate open source project

As part of Pair With Us, Antony and I did a little bit of additional work on JNarrate, although the majority of our work was on Narrative Fixture, which is an extension of JNarrate that wires it into FitNesse.

Further my understanding around NLP

I read a lot of books around NLP and hypnosis in 2009. I also enrolled on a Hypnotherapy and NLP Practitioner diploma. I am still learning loads on this and I am really enjoying it

Have a look at learning LISP

Well, as Meatloaf once said, “Two out of three ain’t bad”. I didn’t have time to work through the SICP course. This will stay on the backlog as I am still quite interested to do this

What else happened?

2009 brought some changes outside of the list.

  • In March, Antony and I started Pair With Us, a series of unedited screencasts showing us working on the Narrative Fixture project, including all of the discussions, arguments, back tracking (and lots and lots of fun)

    A number of people have shown an interest in the both our programming style, and our willingness to show all online, including a number of prominent software craftsmen, such as Uncle Bob Martin, Corey Haines and Jason Gorman

  • In July, I left ThoughtWorks to start up a new company, RiverGlide, with Antony Marcano. This has been very successful so far and I look forward to telling you more about the exciting developments (as well as some more of the history) in future posts