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Shu Ha Ri: Model of Skill Mastery

Shu Ha Ri: Model of Skill Mastery

Any expert is on a path to mastery. In fact, when I see someone calling themselves a master and how they no longer need to learn, I know that they are going through the process of degradation. You are either growing or dying. There is an interesting concept introduced by Aikido master teacher Endo Seishiro called Shu Ha Ri. Shu Ha Ri is a Japanese Martial art concept that describes a learning journey on the path to mastery. In other words, it is a model of skill mastery. You can also say it describes a learning curve. You can also think of it as a process of pursuit of excellence.

As someone who is still spending hours each day, come hell or high water, learning on a path to mastery, I found this concept very helpful.

Here is how Endo Seishiro summarizes the Shu Ha Ri concept:

“When we learn or train in something, we pass through the stages of shu, ha, and ri…

In shu, we repeat the forms and discipline ourselves so that our bodies absorb the forms that our forebearers created. We remain faithful to the forms with no deviation.

Next, in the stage of ha, once we have disciplined ourselves to acquire the forms and movements, we make innovations. In this process, the forms may be broken and discarded.

Finally, in ri, we completely depart from the forms, open the door to creative technique, and arrive in a place where we act in accordance with what our heart/mind desires, unhindered while not overstepping laws.”’

Shu Ha Ri stages

Shu – Keep, protect, keep, stick to or maintain

Shu establishes a pattern. In this phase, you develop muscle memory. It is the beginning of the learning curve. In the Shu stage of Shu Ha Ri, the student does exactly what the master (teacher, Sensei) says they should do. The student copies the master. The student copies without asking why something is done and without doubting the process. The teacher decides when the student is ready to move to the Ha stage. This stage is all about keeping one’s eyes open to teaching, observing, and obeying the order.

In Shu, the student works hard to copy the techniques without modification and without understanding the why behind the techniques used and the sequence used. The idea is that a sound technical foundation can only be reached by following the already established critical path without questioning and even understanding it. The student is viewed as an empty vessel to be filled up.

The teacher waits until the student fully internalized the knowledge and skills, and it became “muscle memory.” Meaning, the student doesn’t need to think about it anymore, it is done automatically. Like playing Beethoven or Rachmaninov is, for the most part, muscle memory because, for most people, it is impossible to remember all the notes that make up a particular piece of music.

The Shu stage of Shu Ha Ri is all about learning the fundamentals. Similar to how we teach problem-solving fundamentals in The Consulting Offer. In fact, you can refer to The Consulting Offer, especially The Consulting Offer 1 with Felix, and especially the initial sessions in the program as Shu stage.

Shu stage trains students physically and mentally. Physically student develops muscle memory related to a particular skill. eg, in problem-solving, a student develops muscle memory of working through a program using hypotheses and decision trees. Mentally, the student learns how to concentrate and not spread attention unnecessarily. The student further learns modesty, trust, faith, endurance, and courage.

Each student goes through a unique journey, and some students need a longer time to complete the Shu stage. The time required depends on how earnestly the student trains and if they train every day, and if a student makes such training the number one priority of that part of their life.

Ha – finding new ways, to tear up, finding the exceptions, reflecting on the truth of everything

The Ha stage in Shu Ha Ri is when the student is ready to start asking why and questioning the process. When a student understands the process and has answered all questions about why something is done the way it is done, the student is ready to move on to Ri stage of Shu Ha Ri.

This is a very dynamic stage, as this is the stage where students focus on understanding and asking why. By this stage, the student has already thoroughly absorbed the techniques into muscle memory.

At the Ha stage of Shu Ha Ri, the student reconstructs and rearranges what the teacher has taught. The Ha stage in Shu Ha Ri involves self-reflection. The student gains an understanding of techniques and the reasons behind the techniques, and of themselves as individuals.

This stage is still being completed with a teacher. There is no set time to complete this stage. It depends on the student and the level of mastery of the teacher. This stage is considered transitional. If a student passes this stage, they become an “adult,” so to speak, in their field of study.

Ri – separation, depart, set free, detach

At the Ri stage, the student is ready to follow their own path and act as their heart desires, as they feel is best. At this stage, the student can work on improving the process.

Ri in Shu Ha Ri is about transcending, going beyond available knowledge. By this stage, the student stops being a student. They are already practitioners. At this stage, practitioners use their own original thoughts to improve the techniques. At this stage, the practitioner is viewed as a master. They already required the required technical skill and knowledge to be called masters. They no longer require a teacher.

Shu Ha Ri is not linear

As with many things in life, Shu Ha Ri is not linear. There may be aspects of Shu and Ha within Ri. The fundamental principles remain constant, but the application can change.

Shu Ha Ri applied in daily life

Shu Ha Ri stages provide structure and a critical path to follow in pursuit of mastery. It provides discipline and demands respect for teachers and the field of study. Given the highly competitive environment business professionals operate in, it does help to have a structured pursuit of mastery approach that has been thoroughly tested. One challenge I see in the West is how little we respect teachers and masters. And that all comes back as boomerang to students.

Shu Ha Ri in Agile

The concept of Shu Ha Ri is applied to agile teams. Because there is a lot of learning happens in Agile, Shu Ha Ri model of skill mastery is very useful there. Ahile thinkers like Alistar Cockburn and Martin Fowler outlined how to use Shu Ha Ri in Agile. Martin Fowler defines Shu Ha Ri as follows:

  • Shu – In this beginning stage the student follows the teachings of one master precisely. He concentrates on how to do the task, without worrying too much about the underlying theory. If there are multiple variations on how to do the task, he concentrates on just the one way his master teaches him.
  • Ha – At this point the student begins to branch out. With the basic practices working he now starts to learn the underlying principles and theory behind the technique. He also starts learning from other masters and integrates that learning into his practice.
  • Ri – Now the student isn’t learning from other people, but from his own practice. He creates his own approaches and adapts what he’s learned to his own particular circumstances.

Application of Shu Ha Ri as a model of skill mastery in management consulting

Anyone interested in becoming an exceptional management consultant can use the Shu Ha Ri process for their learning journey.

Shu – At this stage of Shu Ha Ri, the consultant will focus on acquiring knowledge and skills on how to sell and deliver consulting projects. What are the methodologies, frameworks, and best practices that great consultants use for particular types of projects, such as focus interviews? What type of analyses need to be done to test hypotheses? How to develop hypotheses. How to put together storyboards. How to engage new clients and how to build relationships with current clients.

Resources for the Shu stage in Shu Ha Ri: Everything a management consultant will need for this stage is covered on StrategyTraining.com (Insider and Legacy memberships) and in the Strategy Reading Room. For students who want to take it a level up, we do have coaching programs available where you can have access to a master to help you during the Shu stage of Shu Ha Ri.

Ha – At the Ha stage of Shu Ha Ri, the consultant already has foundational skills and can start focusing on understanding the why behind techniques and processes. At this stage, the consultant can question why something is done a certain way and even challenge whether it is the best way to do something. Consultants at this stage can stop adhering to best practices so rigidly and start thinking independently.

Resources for Ha stage in Shu Ha Ri: StrategyTraining.com (Insider and Legacy memberships) and in the Strategy Reading Room. For students who want to take it a level up, we do have coaching programs available where you can have access to a master to help you during the Shu stage of Shu Ha Ri.

Ri – At the Ri stage of Shu Ha Ri consultant is a young master or practitioner. It usually takes over 15 years for someone to reach this stage. At this stage, consultants can use original thought to come up with better methodologies, techniques, and processes to serve clients. This stage is about transcendence, going beyond what is currently considered best practice in management consulting. It is, however, generally only possible to surpass the original masters if those masters stopped learning. So at this stage, it is still advisable to have access to masters who are at a higher level of mastery. Because when you stop learning, you start seeing a deterioration in your skills.

Resources for Ri stage in Shu Ha Ri: At this stage, it is advisable to still have access to Legacy membership on StrategyTraining.com and the Strategy Reading room, as well as access to experienced masters who are at a higher level of mastery. For example, through our Strategy Training Executive Coaching program.

Author: Kris Safarova, CEO of StrategyTraining.com & Firmsconsulting.com

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