Sunday, September 6, 2015

Agile Lessons from the Martial Arts

My talk — Agile Lessons from the Martial Arts — delivered at LAST (Lean Agile Systems Thinking) Conference  2015.

You can read about my martial arts background here.



Here's the scoop, 10 lessons I've learned from the martial arts that apply to Agile practice and coaching in the business world.

In the session I largely present the martial arts side and ask the audience to draw parallels with Agile practice and coaching. Here I spell it out.

1. Trust is about relationship

"The martial arts begin with trust."

In jiu-jitsu (and other martial arts) we practice dangerous techniques: throws, arm-locks, strangles, kicks and punches. Without cooperation and trust the risk of injury would make it impossible to train safely and effectively. If we injure our training partners by breaking their limbs, dislocating joints, or dropping them on their heads we would have no-one to train with next week, to say nothing of the fallout of shattered relationships and the expense and indignity of law-suits!

In business settings I've observed that people operate principally with one of two definitions of trust.
  1. Trust as predictability: e.g. if you say you'll do something, you'll do it; if you say you can do something, that means you have that capability, etc.
  2. Trust as relationship: I can trust you not to "stab me in the back", because it is understood that by looking out for each other we we'll jointly benefit.
* * *

It's the second kind of trust that I value, and helps lay the foundation for high performance teams. The first kind (predictability), in my view, is really just professional courtesy and competence.

Without real trust you'll always being wasting energy watching your back.

2. Ritual and respect 

The Japanese martial arts are rife with ritual. One bows when one first greets one's instructor, when entering the dojo (training hall), when getting onto the training mat, when leaving the training mat, before working with a new partner, after finishing with a training partner. As part of the opening and closing ceremonies we get down on our knees and bow repeatedly: to a place of honour (symbolising the art, and previous generations of instructors and students), to the instructor, and to each other.

All this bowing and kneeling acts in part to put us in a humble mood. It reminds us of how much we owe our teachers and predecessors for sharing their knowledge, and each other for joining us in the act of training and study.

It is also reassuring. We sanctify the training hall by repeated ritual, and thereby turn it into a place of sanctuary, where we can leave our every-day stresses and troubles at the door and engage in cooperative and mutually beneficial activity.

* * *

In the very popular Agile practice of the daily stand-up (for example) we similarly engage in repeated, somewhat repetitive behaviour-with-a-purpose. As with the opening ceremony before starting a session of martial arts, we engage with each other in a place (often at a Scrum or Kanban wall) and ready ourselves to work together.

Having a team "space" also taps into something very human. It gives a sense of familiarity and safety amid the hubbub and unpredictability.

By practicing respect and courtesy you reinforce an excellent habit: paying attention and listening to other people. People who are overly arrogant tend to talk a lot and manipulate others. For me, listening and engaging is the superior approach.

3. The journey to mastery is like climbing a staircase 

When I started learning martial arts I apologised to my instructor about my lack of coordination: I regarded myself as a clumsy person. To his eternal credit he basically ignored my comment and told me to stick with the exercise.

This is the genius of Shu, the first phase of learning. Shu means, roughly, "learn the rules".

The way I learned the fundamentals of jiu-jitsu is so brilliantly structured and taught that as long as you "get with program", you will learn and develop a base level of competence. As a student all you need is an open mind, persistence, and self-belief.

Not everyone has these: if you think you already know better, how can you learn something new?

An open mind: Empty your cup
A master was trying to explain something to a student. Now this student was not a brand new student, but a senior student who had learned many things. He had knowledge and experience aplenty to draw upon. But each time the master tried to explain something new to the student, the student kept trying to hold it up against his own notions of the way the world is and how it ought be, and he was unable to see the lessons in what the master was trying to teach him.

Finally, the master poured a full serving of tea into his own cup, and into the cup of the student. Then he told the student he wanted to give to him some of the tea from his own cup. He began pouring tea from his cup into the student's cup, but the student's cup was already full, and all the tea from the master's cup spilled out over the cup onto the surface below.

The student said, "Master, you can't pour anything into my cup until I empty it to make room for what you are trying to give me.", and the master replied "Yes, I know. And I can't give you any new thoughts or ideas or perspectives on life's lessons until you clear out some thoughts that are already teeming in your mind to make room for what I have to teach you." 
Then the master paused for a brief moment, meeting the student's eyes with his own knowing look and calmly but sternly said: "If you truly seek understanding, then first, empty your cup!"

When you attempt something new, either you experience immediate success, or not. For complex skills this initial experience is in no way the whole story.

Those who get off to a fast start, typically fall back to earth quickly, then has to work hard to recapture that success, and then hit a plateau before climbing to the next level:

The other possibility is that there is no immediate success: the initial experience starts with the plateau:

Interestingly, the slow-starters often do better in the long haul, because inner determination has been established from the outset. Shades of the tortoise and the hare.

The long haul journey to mastery is a lot like climbing a very long stair-case. Periods of progress alternate with plateaus.

If you mistake that first plateau for "the point of diminishing returns", you'll never break through to higher levels of achievement.

All of this came as quite a contrast to how I had learned growing up. It seems to me that in western culture we over-subscribe to the myth of talent: one is encouraged to persist with whatever one shows initial promise in. We get excited when we find "prodigies", and too-often over-praise them for their precocious gifts rather than hard work.

Martial arts taught me that this is a shallow perspective. By dint of genetics or previous experience some things come easily. That's mainly luck. When you climb the stairway to mastery through long dedication, that's really earned.

The literal translation of kung fu is not specific to the martial arts. It means "Skill achieved through hard work".

* * *

I perceive an irony in the modern business world. On the one hand, because of the pace of change and competitiveness, Agile and Lean approaches are in demand to raise quality and crush delivery time-frames. But, the mastery of these ways of working is a long journey that cannot be rushed.

So my mental model of learning and teaching (above) helps me to gauge where an individual, team, or organisation is on the journey, and I vary my practice accordingly.

4. Weakness becomes strength

What does it feel like to experience one of these plateaus?

After trying a few martial arts at University I stuck with jiu-jitsu because I was able to progress. Not on a continuous upward climb mind you. The trick was that we studied many inter-related techniques, concurrently, and while I was not visibly improving on several fronts, we would nevertheless keep practicing, and there was some sense of accomplishment with some of the techniques, while there was the opportunity to keep coming back to the ones that posed difficulties.

The trick is to just do the work and not be self-judging, and to trust the system and the judgement of your instructor that you will progress. Worrying or judging yourself is a waste of energy. The trick is doing less, not more.

That said, when I started there was a particular technique, a hip throw with many moving parts and details, that was my "worst technique". Some techniques came intuitively, others I was able to get working with instruction and feedback, and then gradually smooth off, but this one felt really clunky. I felt like I was faking it.

But I kept coming back to this technique. The system of learning made it unavoidable. So for two years I practiced it, thought about it, took it to pieces, and it still felt clunky. But when it *finally* clicked I knew its details and nuances better than any other technique. 

Today it is one of my favourite techniques, and when I teach it my students tend to do it rather well. By spending so much time on the plateau I learned how to teach it better than the techniques that come easily!

* * *

Don't think that it is only the things that came to you easily that have value. Sure, your strengths may be valuable in execution, but when it comes to mentoring these may only serve as inspiration. If you've ever struggled to master something you probably have much more to offer aspirants when coaching that same skill. 

For things that came easily to me it's always harder to teach: I have to reverse-engineer and experiment to get results, and I never have the same empathy when it comes to teaching others because I walked a very different, easier path.

Faced with a difficult challenge, I look first for multiple approaches, look to take small steps, strive to be patient yet persistent, and chip away on more than one front.

5. How to teach

My experience at high-school was that the best teachers taught to the "middle" of the cohort and tried to do a bit to help the "gifted" and the laggards. Accordingly I stuck with the subjects that I excelled in, but didn't expect much from the teachers, and turned to my own ingenuity and the course material.

In the martial arts I have learned a far better system, incorporating both mastery learning, spiral learning, and learning by teaching.

I have touched on mastery learning and spiral learning already without saying so.

In mastery learning you do not progress to higher levels until you have mastered the existing material at a reasonably high level of proficiency. Instead of grading people on a curve and promoting by age cohort, students are tested for promotion to the next belt when they are ready. People learn at different rates, and some train more intensively than others at different times. We're not on a schedule.

Spiral learning is the circling back through material to achieve greater depth, not getting stuck, but not allowing avoidance of areas of difficulty either.

We also learn by teaching. In a typical jiu-jitsu class the instructor will demonstrate a technique by (for example) throwing a senior student and explaining key points. Then the class breaks into pairs and they practice together, taking turns to throw (or whatever) or be thrown. If there is a more experienced person in the pair, they can effectively give one-on-one instruction. This helps the senior clarify their understanding, while the junior gets personalised practice. Experienced peers will do more exploratory work around the technique.

Can you see how this approach allows people of varying standards and experience to learn without "streaming", teaches life-skills, and helps the students who are btoh above and below the middle standard to improve?

* * *

I believe that these approaches have great relevance in the workplace. One can coach intensively for mastery by focussing on particular practices or principles, and spiral back to things that didn't take root repeatedly.

When team members mentor each other is also remarkably powerful, and is one way to help fuse a "group of workers" into a team. Pair-programming is a par excellence example of this in an Agile setting.

Colleagues can learn together and from each other. We need more of this in the workplace.

6. There is more than one path to the top of the mountain

When I struggle to learn something (as a beginner) I need very structured teaching to break through that initial plateau. When I have something of a grasp I need to explore and improve.

One of my main instructors taught me to teach good technique first. "Some people will never get the underlying principles, but there is still value in learning the techniques." First concrete, then abstract.

Just learning the rules is the "Shu" stage. Next is "Ha", break the rules. This begins by asking "why?", and figuring out some of the principles.

No technique works in every situation: so we invent or stumble on variations that make different trade-offs. Understanding principle allows us to reconcile variety.

* * *

How do I apply this in an Agile setting? By learning lots of practices and the underlying principles I can craft bespoke approaches from my toolkit. It's not enough to have lots of tools, you need to be able to figure when to use them to best effect.

7. Order and Chaos

Fundamentally there are two kinds of practice in martial arts: choreographed drills (these tend to be cooperative) and competitive play: both the asymmetric self-defence and symmetric sparring.

Pre-arranged drills teach us technique and habit. Reflexive self-defence (where the attack is not known to the defender in advance) simulates the unpredictability of a real encounter.

It is also possible to explore the area in-between.

* * *

In the modern world we develop technical skills and processes, but it is a mistake that we can impose order on everything through planning. We need to develop our intuition and decision-making for when the unexpected occurs.

8. Under stress, you do what you have internalised

Learning techniques cooperatively gives us the building blocks to apply in a conflict situation. Much practice is required so that these techniques happen without "thinking": they must become second nature.

In martial arts, beginners will fall back on one or two favourite techniques. They may be able to do more if the pressure is off, but when the chips are down, they'll revert to what they know and what works for them.

*  *  *

Similarly, it's common to see people who are ostensibly Agile revert to command-and-control or cowboy development approaches or begin design up-front, when placed under stress, or when coaching support is taken away.

Transformation takes time, support, and reinforcement.

9. When in doubt, keep moving

When attacked, our ancestral response will be "fight, flight or freeze".

Freeze is typically the worst when fighting other humans. When you stop moving you become  a "sitting duck". Movement creates possibilities and openings.

* * *

Similarly, in a situation of organisational conflict or challenges, trying out different things, changing it up, can create new possibilities.

If you have done your time learning the rules (Shu) and broken the rules (Ha), you may be ready to forget the rules (Ri). This is the stage of "unthinking competence", whereby your internalised skill allows you to follow your intuition and see what emerges.

Ri is very advanced and should not be confused with being brave and clueless!

10. There are no limits

My journey in the martial arts has felt a bit like peeling an onion: with some effort you scrape off one layer only to discover there's something deeper and a bit juicier underneath. (Sometimes your eyes also water.)

They're called martial arts for a reason. There's craft and science to learning, but there's also opportunity for self-expression through refinement of one's learning and teaching, technical innovation, and execution.

Studying the martial arts has been a wonderful journey for me. Something not to rush, but to savour. Even though I feel I've figured out a thing or two, the more you know the more you become aware of your current limitations, but get ideas about what might help to improve.

* * *

When I first started consciously applying Agile approaches, I thought that they were only suitable to small-scale, already somewhat exceptional teams. Over a decade later my experience in the martial arts gives me hope (and tools) that they can be adapted and applied far more widely.

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