Understanding the concept of ‘Shu Ha Ri’ in coaching

Shu ha ri

Mastering Coaching Excellence: A Journey through Shu Ha Ri in The Agile Company's Learning Paths

Embarking on the path to becoming an expert professional coach is a transformational developmental journey that needs focused practice, study, and mentoring.

Coaching and using the coaching competencies will at first feel unnatural, but when you master the skill, you will realize you are using the core competencies for coaching in everything you do throughout the day. It has become part of your go-to toolbox and hopefully has helped you to be a better Agile coach altogether.

We can place the Japanese concept of Shu Ha Ri in our journey to illustrate the different phases we may encounter “growing” into the core competencies as a professional Agile Coach.

Shu Ha Ri is a concept derived from Japanese martial arts. Similar to the progression of a martial artist from mimicry to mastery. If you have ever had the pleasure of watching Karate Kid (no matter the version!) you’ll notice that the master teaches the apprentice by making him do seemingly useless movements to perfection (Shu) until the movement is natural and perfected and the apprentice understands that all he learned wasn’t to better wax a car or put a jacket on a knob; no, he actually now has internalized the movement to perfection and can use it to defend or attack his karate opponent (Ha). At the end of these amazing movies, the apprentice bends that movement into a winning streak (Ri) and creates his own destiny by forging his own movements with its learning.

So, what is Shu Ha Ri?

It is a way to describe skill acquisition using three levels, named shuha, and ri. Please keep in mind that these levels are actually not linear but rather circular! One may fall back to Ha when mastering a new skill, and some parts of any skill will always need a little Shu humility.

  • Shu: Follow the rule. At this stage, learners are focused on what the rules of the skill are. Learners at this level often want a list of rules about what they should do and how they should do it. A lack of rules or excessive exceptions to the rules will cause confusion and frustration.
  • Ha, bend the rule. At this stage, the learner has learned the basic rules of the skill and is now learning what the exceptions to the rules are. This stage can also start to include context-specific rules. e.g., Rule X applies in situation Y but not in situation Z. Experimentation and celebrating failure are helpful here!
  • Ri: Be the rule. At this stage, the specific rules are less important than the principles behind the rules. In fact, the specific rules originally learned may now seem overly burdensome. The skill or movement has become part of the practitioner and flows from the master. Also, the master can now use the skill in many different situations. It might even create a whole new universe of skills based on the ones they internalize.

How to work through Shu towards becoming a professional Agile Coach with The Agile Company

Shu (Obey): Building a Solid Foundation: Learn, reflect, and do

At the inception of this journey, you can learn from reading a book, asking questions, and trial and error, and of course, we would recommend you start with solid training!

Here is how The Agile Company supports you through the Shu phase:

Foundational Training: Becoming a Professional Agile Coach, you might want to start by reading the most comprehensive book on Agile Coaching, “Coaching Agile Teams, after which enrolling in our “Coaching Agile Teams” and then the “Facilitating Growth in Agile Teams” courses, which are accredited by ICAgile and the ICF, would be a logical step. The way these courses are set up allows you to understand the competencies and practice them with peers already. It creates a safe space for you to challenge yourself and your peers, and you can bring your challenges and questions to your trainer.

Remember that even seasoned Agile coaches or Scrum masters may have some “unlearning” to do. This may apply to anyone in the class, so we always focus on creating the space for you and your peers to feel safe bringing up different ideas and observations.

These two programs allow you to pause and reflect on your daily work as an agile coach and what “moves” and skills you’d like to practice more. Some may feel completely alien to you; often the professional coaching stance, for example, feels a bit unnatural,” but with practice and dedication, feedback, and mentoring, you’ll integrate the competencies into your work and life and be a better agile coach for it.

Leverage the notebooks and extra material: you will have an e-learning module, notebooks, and extra material within reach when onboarding with The Agile Company. Go through the lessons in the e-learning, and sometimes go back to them; they are regularly updated! Also, print out your notebook and always keep a pen and paper with you. You never know when someone—your trainer, you, or your peer—will bring in a valuable lesson. Capture everything so you can go back to learning, pause, and reflect on what the new learning means to you in your context.

Use your coaching hours: every course participant can request up to 2 coaching hours with their trainers. By being in a coaching session with a professional agile coach, you will see the power of coaching in motion and be able to grow in their session. It doesn’t matter if you want straight-up advice or want to work out an obstacle to your own growth; the coaches at The Agile Company will do their best to support you in your development!

Reach out to the community: Within The Agile Company’s vibrant community, you’ll find events, observed coaching practice, extra learning opportunities that broaden the core competencies, and a large network of active coaches that may face or have faced the same challenges you do. The community platform is made for and by its members. You’ll find your notebooks, articles, videos, and even job opportunities for you to consider.

Practice within guidelines: depending on what you want to learn, focus on one or two new learnings at the coaching session. Coaching is a complex skill, and learning everything at the same time would spread your attention too thin. Perhaps focus only on “active listening skills” or evoking awareness skills through questions and observations shared.” Step by step, you’ll see your skills move towards Ha, one by one. Also, they are not really standalone skills, so when you improve your active listening, you’ll see your evoking awareness competencies improve as well, and vice versa!

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Moving to Ha, breaking with the rules of the competencies, and using them in service of your clients ​

When you feel you are most of the time listening attentively to what other people tell you with all their communications (body, words, tone, etc.), you’ll notice you are moving into the Ha stage of coaching. When it becomes natural to focus on the person as well as the agenda, to hold the needs of the team as well as the organization in your work, to experiment with different coaching techniques and facilitation tools, and to start observing your impact on your clients and teams, you are moving in the right direction.

Important now is to keep this in mind: The expert beginner antipattern needs your love.

There is an interesting point when learners are approaching the end of the shu phase or entering the ha phase for any given skill. Shu and Ha are all about learning the rules and finding exceptions to them. It can be easy for learners to mix mastering the rules of a skill with mastering the skill itself. This pitfall is so common that it even has a special name: expert beginner. The expert beginner trap is an important one for any learner to keep in mind as they are acquiring a new skill. It’s always worth asking a self-reflective question about whether you have truly mastered a skill or if you have only mastered the beginning rules of that skill.

Here is how The Agile Company supports you in the Ha phase:

Broaden your competencies with deeper learning and focused mentoring. Now that the basic rules are learned, understood, and even mastered, we propose you embark on a deep dive into the competencies of the professional coach, tailored to the context of an Agile coach! The “Core Coaching Competencies for Agilists” will fully focus on the ICF Core Competencies for Coaching and how to integrate them in your work as an Agile Coach. This course deep dives into the eight core competencies and creates space for mentoring and peer review of mastery. It includes at least 10 weeks of cohort-based peer learning and will elevate your skills to whatever next level you are focusing on! As this course is the bridge between our Level 1 and Level 2 offerings, you’ll be with coaches that hold different stages of Ha and even have mastered some skills at the Ri level. This will help you and your peers, each in their own way, as peer learning and mentoring are at the core of this course. This course also includes group mentoring and individual mentoring sessions and will be concluded when you are ready with an official Level 1 or Level 2 evaluation of your skills.

You can also add Systems Coaching for Agile” to your list of learnings, where you will be applying many different coaching techniques and tools to your work as a team, leadership, or enterprise agile coach!

When you have also completed the Business Agility Coaching courses, you are even ready to apply for the level 2 evaluation.

Experiment with Approaches: The community space gives you the opportunity to test and learn in different ways: Offer a meetup session on a skill you have learned or co-create a lean coffee on coaching skills. Ask the community to give you tips and ideas for your next team coaching session, and reflect back to the community what you learned from trying it out.

Bring your skills and competencies to work and to your larger communities, and ask for more feedback whenever you can.

Reflect and adapt: Post-coaching interactions and introspection should become your compass now. Evaluating your performance, asking for feedback and learning, identifying effective strategies, and acknowledging avenues for improvement lay the foundation for growth. You can always book a supervision or mentoring session with your mentor coach; in fact, it is included in the Core Coaching Competencies for Agilists” course.

Ri (Leave): Forging Your Coaching Identity

As Ri is where you are moving onto the mastering path, I’d like to keep all options open for you. Shu ha Ri are not linear, they are circular and help you develop in a vertical and horizontal way. You grow as much as you learn. In coaching, learning cannot have an end game. Perfect your coaching competencies and movements by sharing your wisdom, creating coaching communities at work, speaking about it in the community, or even by becoming a trainer with The Agile Company, when the time and skill is ripe! Branch out to different industries, learn whole new coaching techniques and skills and mix them with what you know works well for you and your clients. Ask for referrals and feedback, and make the world a bit better every day, one question at a time!

Shu Ha and Ri are Circular, not Linear!

Remember, when a new skill is being learned, the mastered skills will drop back to Ha, sometimes even Shu. This will resolve itself when the new skill is mastered. Focus on what you now want to learn and where you want to grow next and stay humble. Mastering coaching is not easy and using it as a powerful tool in your Agile Coaching work will allow your clients to reap the benefits of focused coaching, and successful outcomes!

July 2024
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Alexandra Togan

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Embarking on the path to becoming an expert professional coach is a transformative developmental journey that needs focused practice, study and mentoring.