Project Lessons Learnt And Shu-Ha-Ri

It’s interesting how the issue of trying to learn from project failures and successes is a somewhat timeless and seemingly generally unappetising and difficult activity, see for example here and here and other posts on this blog.

As an example, take the recent discussion motivated from a meeting at the BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT:

Talking to colleagues, most seem to absorb project management best-practice in the following order:

  • personal experience;
  • adherence to standards;
  • ad-hoc, anecdotal experience of others; and
  • published technical literature.

Nowhere on this list are the formal review findings of previous projects’ performance. What’s missing is the opportunity to learn from past experience at a local level, for example in one particular corporate environment or a niche sector.

However an interesting new aspect is to make a connection with martial arts concepts!

The second observation is one of personal development. The realisation that the more experienced you are, the less you know – as your expanding circle of knowledge increases in area faster than your expanding sector of expertise.

An alternative way of expressing this is through the martial arts concept of Shu-Ha-Ri.

This concept describes three stages of learning of a martial art, namely Shu (approximating to -beginner), Ha (journeyman) and Ri (master).

Expressed this way, the Shu-Ra-Hi concept sounds very similar to the more Western-leaning theory of Four Competencies, there is a key difference, that being the cyclic nature of Shu-Ra-Hi. When you reach the Ri stage of any one discipline, you realise the limitations of what you have mastered and are ready to embark to the Shu stage of a related discipline or area of expertise.  This self-reflective realisation is missing from the Four Competency theory (although some have tried to modify it to allow this) and perhaps explains why project managers are reluctant to learn formally from previous projects.

Picture credit: Wikipedia.

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