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  • Writer's pictureBill Holmes

Project Management Basics – Chapter 15 – Agile Rituals – Shu Ha Ri

Project, program, portfolio, leadership
Follow the process until you understand the process!

“Knowing is not enough, we must apply. Willing is not enough, we must do.” Bruce Lee

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” Aristotle

I first heard of Shu Ha Ri in an Aikido Dojo.

I was taking Taekwondo under Master Choi in a small school in Augusta, GA. My friends and I were consumed by the sport for several years, training constantly and regularly competing in local tournaments. I was attending a tournament in Columbia, SC, where I made the tactical mistake of walking into a spinning back kick with a trailing backhand.

While I was recovering from my broken nose, I went to see the movie “Above the Law” starring 7th-dan black belt Steven Segal. I was mesmerized! I had never seen such powerful and direct moves in any dojo I had visited, and I vowed then to learn the art. That is how I was introduced to the awesome and amazing martial art of Aikido.

After some searching (there was no internet then!) I found out that the local YMCA held Aikido classes 3 times a week. I nervously put on my Taekwondo gi and entered the gym, bowing nervously as I stepped onto the dojo mat. I lined up and waited with several other students until sensei walked in. He was a short stocky man and immediately got the odd feeling that he worked with computers. I later found out that he was one of the highest-ranking sensei in the southeast!

We bowed in and he began to lead us through a series of warmup exercises that I tried my best to follow. The moves were different from any kata I had seen before. While I wasn’t sure why we were doing them, but I tried my best to copy sensei.

Aikido is taught by doing. The instructor calls a student to attack and demonstrates the defense technique. After several demonstrations, the entire class pairs off and tries to copy the technique. After a few classes I began to see that the opening warmup exercises were in fact basic defense moves, and after several months I began to instinctively make the appropriate move when attacked. My body had internalized the movements.

Later I began to modify the moves slightly to accommodate my body type and personal preferences. After several years I modified the basic movements and tried to use innovative new ways to defend myself from multiple attackers.

That is the essence of what Alistair Cockburn and others wrote about how organizations should adopt agile!

Shu – When you begin Aikido, someone with much more experience than you teaches the forms and movements. You should repeat them exactly and with discipline until your body absorbs and internalizes them. When you begin agile, you should strictly adhere to agile practices! Sprint planning, daily scrum, sprint review and the sprint retrospective should be put in place and followed exactly.

Ha – Once your discipline has allowed you to acquire and understand, on a deep level, the forms and movements, you can begin to modify your art based on your personal preferences and body type. Once you understand the purpose of the agile rituals, you can begin to modify them based on the needs of the project and the organization.

Ri – With a deep understanding of the art and the fundamental principles, you can make the Aikido your own! Once you deeply understand the underlying values and principles of agile, you can achieve them any way you want!

You must learn the basic movements first. Don’t rush to change the agile rituals until you understand the agile rituals.

Next I’ll discuss the product roadmap.


Writing this made me remember what it was like to be young! I can recall excitedly hopping into my car on “aikido nights” to practice and returning home sweating, exhausted and often with minor injuries. It was a treat to attend the “main” dojo in Atlanta on Saturday just to see the amazingly talented people there. When I traveled for work, I would take my gi with me and seek out dojo’s in every city. I am proud to say that I have trained with some amazing and talented people all across the United States. I even trained at a dojo in Paris! I still train by doing the basic movements, but I haven’t had anyone attack me in a while. I guess that’s part of getting older too…


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