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Shu Ha Ri: How To Train People To Want to See What They Don't Know

I read with interest my colleague Mark Needham's recent blog post about his experience as a trainer at ThoughtWorks University, the on-boarding program my company uses for entry-level employees.  TWU utilizes a training methodology invented by Jay Cross called "workscaping," which is ably described in this blog post by the TWU director, Sumeet Moghe.  This is a very cool program, not least because most entry-level new hires get flown from all over the world to India for six weeks to participate in it.

Sumeet's thesis is that the best way to teach people is to put them to work immediately, so they can become aware in context of things they need to learn, and then reach out for that knowledge.  Build the need, then satisfy the need.  And indeed my observation is that in this world, we are now much busier fending off information than reaching out for it.

A poignant, but useful digression, I promise:  When I was growing up in Appleton, Wisconsin, USA, I was incredibly excited about the one time I got to go to the Museum of Science and Industry on the south side of Chicago for a high school field trip. 

Downtown Appleton, Wisconsin, USA
The Whispering Gallery!  The dollhouse!  Interactive stuff!  I was enchanted.  In fact, I still remember that trip pretty vividly, and it was more than thirty years ago.

Whispering gallery at the Museum of Science and Industry
When I took on the daunting task of raising my own daughter in Chicago, we lived across the street from the Museum of Science and Industry.  I bought a membership!  She practically grew up there!  Until she turned five, and lost all interest.

Today, my daughter doesn't go into museums unless bribed or forced in some way.  Her dad recently convinced her to visit the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and she told me that although she liked it, she found it overwhelming--there was too much there to analyze, too much to think about.  Zosie's opinion was apparently shared by "Julia" from Sao Paulo:
Copyright Moma 2011
Our society has become so efficient at aggregating things--museums, orchestras, books, schoolroom curricula, 24/7 internet on tap--that we need to build walls and set limits to avoid being constantly overwhelmed.  Goethe, as I am fond of saying, was the last person in a position to know "all there is to know," not just because there will never be another Goethe, but because since 1832, our collective information about the world has exploded, and although it is now almost all available at our fingertips, it is really hard to filter everything and to form a personal set of knowledge which is meaningful.

But what, you say, does this have to do with Sumeet Moghe, Mark Needham, ThoughtWorks University, and Alistair Cockburn's frequently cited agile references to "Shu Ha Ri," the Japanese budo concept roughly meaning "hold, break, leave?"

I'm here to advocate for the opposite of aggregation:  trainers who inspire and condense.  If we want to train people to do things, we need to put them into an Appleton state of mind:  aware of what they are missing and eager to learn it.  And ironically, I'm not sure that having people do "work" in a "workscape" is always as efficient as self-contained "artificial" training scenarios, or even, gasp, lectures, for making people fall in love with what they don't know.

Here's what Mark says about the difference between the experience he had getting old-fashioned classroom training (in the olden days of 2006), versus the kind of learning which occurred in this year's workscape:  "My general feeling is that although TWU v2.0 is better designed for helping people to learn, an advantage of the previous approach was that there was more opportunity to see the gaps in your skill-set."

There is something deeply inspiring about hearing the best of a senior person's years of experience condensed into a digestible presentation, especially one that can be revisited later by reading it in words, written examples and diagrams.  Although significant amounts of learning occur when a person is thrust into a position where they need to find a solution, there is a danger that having found the solution, the learner will lose interest in the topic altogether.  We need to create opportunities for that person to look beyond the moment, aspire to something better than the first solution to hand, and become aware of the value of lessons learned by others.

Rachel Davies has gone on record saying she is uncomfortable with the authoritarianism implicit in the "Shu Ha Ri" philosophy of teaching agile techniques.  "Just let people learn to think on their feet," she says.  I have to say that I'm not totally sure about this.  I've experienced an agile training where the trainer distributed people who were brand-new to agile into groups, positioned them near an empty wall, and said "okay, have a scrum meeting."  It was silly, and I doubt this is what Rachel had in mind, but I think we sometimes need to have heroes we admire telling us exactly what to do to get beyond ourselves and our own beliefs about our limitations.

Show people a whole functioning system mastered by a person who has spent years on it, and ask them to internalize small parts of it one at a time before going on to look for variations.  Go ahead and let them see someone who is really great, and be inspired to emulate them and to take advantage of the community's experience.  Shu Ha Ri -- learn the rules, break the rules, then ignore the rules.

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