Reflection – The Key to Achieving Mastery

The martial arts concept shu-ha-ri is often used to describe the journey of mastery that practitioners of agile and lean techniques undertake. When you start out (shu), you focus strongly on applying the practices exactly as prescribed by a master of the discipline. Through regular and conscientious application, these practices become second nature to such an extent, that you are able to start experimenting and adapting them (ha). Finally, when you truly master the discipline (ri) your energy is no longer focused on the mastery of practices, but on living the principles of the discipline in everything you do, applying and combining relevant practices as appropriate.

Mostly shu with some flashes of ha

I am not going to attempt to pin our family’s lean-agile journey to a specific point on the shu-ha-ri continuum. That would be foolish and not very insightful at all.  But I do want to acknowledge an important milestone that we passed a few months ago. If you look through the blog archives, you’ll see our first lean-agile experiments started in 2008. I initiated them and, for the most part, I’ve been our Scrum Master ever since then, guarding our process and continuing to evolve it based on feedback from the kids and my husband.

Most aspects of our process have been designed by me, with about 20% of it reflecting modifications from feedback. This feedback has come through in conversations and inspired moments when the kids in particular would ask to change something, if they saw a more fun (or sometimes just simpler!) way of doing something I had suggested. These moments have always excited me, as they were signs of growing engagement with the core principles.

The Hiatus

But if you had asked me this time last year whether everybody would continue using our lean-agile process if I weren’t around to actively nurture them, I would’ve had my doubts. In organizations, it’s not uncommon for teams who take up Agile or Lean processes enthusiastically to fall back into previous behaviour after a while, especially if the original advocates or change agents leave the organization. This is a particularly strong likelihood if the team is still in shu and dependent on the insight and expertise of the change agent.

Towards the end of last year, I went through some particularly tough challenges at work and personally, and I found myself with less energy to maintain my Scrum Master role at home. In fact, I stopped focusing on our home practises completely. I needed to look inward and deal with some very deep-seated patterns in my life that were threatening to undo me on various fronts.

After a few months, I felt ready to pick up where we had left off. But I had changed. And I knew the way forward for our agile family had to be less about me, and more about them, if double-loop learning  were ever to take root deeply in their lives – as I believe it needs to if we want future generations to be able to operate confidently and successfully in an unpredictable and ever-changing world.

The burgeoning of ri through reflection

I realized that if I simply reignited our practises the way they were before, I would be setting us back on our agile journey. I didn’t quite come to this realization on my own, though. I was reminded of the importance of the Retrospective by somebody who joined my team briefly last year and my active participation in the @Retroflection initiative on Twitter. Bruce Feiler had also just launched his highly popular Secrets of Happy Families in which using agile for families certainly went mainstream. He specifically highlighted the key role the family meeting plays in their use of Agile techniques. (Thanks, Bruce!)

Together, they all reminded me that reflection is ultimately the key to achieving mastery. It is through regular, open and honest reflection that we understand the meaning of what we do and discover new ways to apply what we know. Without reflection, we will continue to apply the practises we know – or that others have set for us – without truly making them our own.

With clarity of mind, I called a family meeting and asked each person what they enjoyed or found helpful from our previous system and what they would want to start doing again. Each family member had found something valuable that they wanted to see returning. Foremost, was the Thursday family chat, followed by our weekend chore board and the points system that we have been using to explicitly show how each member contributes in different ways to running our lives. There was also a request to make the Thursday meeting more informal though and work it into dinner time, rather than running it as a “planning meeting”. Ouch. But point taken, thank you. 😉

Ever since then, these three simple practises have become and remained the core of our family’s agile system. And everybody is involved with making sure that we stick to them. Some weeks or weekends we do better than others. But we know when we’re not doing well and we talk about it, and fix it. Together.

Upon Reflection

I can’t quite describe or quantify it, but it really does feel as if we have reached a new level of understanding in our application of Agile and Lean techniques.  I know I have. I also know that with this new level of understanding, comes an even deeper understanding that there is a lifetime of further learning ahead of me.

Mastery is not a final destination, but a journey, with reflection your constant companion. Mastery is knowing you have a lot more to know, and that there is no end to the knowing.

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