Martial Arts in Agile

As part of working within the agile world, we often scour and take great ideas from everywhere.  We will also form a few of our own.  Many come from seemingly unconventional sources such as the world of martial arts.  The terminology of Shu, Ha, Ri, – the maturity phases of a team passing through beginner, intermediate and expert, come from Aikido.   I remember Bruce Lee as an epic master and his art of Jeet Kune Do also expressing several wonderful maxims.  Among them; be like water, and with all motion: be direct, simple and efficient.  Sounding pretty agile yet?  I was pointed towards a book called Zen in the Martial Arts by Joe Hyam.   It is a wonderful and quick read by a student of Bruce Lee, that shares his wisdom with more than a few stories.  It is as applicable to the world of agile, as it is to martial arts.  The same human mind is at the center of both; learning, growing, overcoming.  Here are some of the passages that echoed amidst my own thoughts and resonated with my experiences.   I encourage you to read it as well.  There were three themes I saw as fairly prevalent.

The Mind – It is a powerful part of everything we endeavor upon. Visualize the success, focus, concentrate and RELAX.  Channel the effort, don’t let it dissipate or be spent thrashing.  (Distractions may be technical or even emotional.)  We need to know ourselves with a constant awareness.   Most of the time we invent and create our own fears.  Thoughts grow in the mind like in a garden – are we growing our fears, doubts, and negativity or are we fostering confidence and trust?  ‘Tighten’ or focus the mind towards achieving one specific goal at a time.  At times the mind is not ready to receive and we would do well to instead be more like an empty cup and be able to accept ideas and learn from everywhere.  Fully committing ourselves to the most advisable and best solution.   Nothing is impossible to a mind that is willing.  Flexibility wins over rigidity.  The power of the mind is infinite.

Zen – There is a Zen riddle: “When you seek it you cannot find it.”   This is so true.  There are many problems that are best solved indirectly, or perhaps need time and experience in order to solve.  These might be support or growth type of issues, or even team environment and cultural changes that have a different tempo.  Sometimes these are problems which seem to affix us, distract us, and yes – seem to BLOCK us.  Some will be alleviated only as a side affect of other initiatives and endeavors.  Still others we will simply move around and come back to.  Remember that even Masters have Masters and are themselves CONTINUOUSLY learning.  When Masters (Scrum Masters, Coaches, etc.)  prefer to SHARE and not show students – both will leave the experience better.  Philosophy, zen, as a vehicle for personal development which de-emphasizes sheer intellect and instead points towards intuitive action.  I remember another zen saying – “It is the space between the bars which keeps the tiger caged”.  I have always picture the tempo of what we do – time itself as a space like the spacing in notes.  If we disconnect for too long a time – there is plenty of room for that tiger to escape.  The same with agile sprints, standups or touchpoints and letting disaster slip from our control.

Confidence – It is not self consciousness but concentration that should be cherished.  A defeat is part of the learning process.  Just do it, because with practice, anything become second nature and part of a natural instinctive reflex that no longer requires thought.  Diving into a problem or going up against a partner on the mat, you are simply seeking to become better and more experienced in the work ‘dojo’.  Situations which are unfamiliar to us cause us to be less confident.  It is our own exploration, extending ourselves into what we do and probing the limits or our abilities that offers us the greatest experience.  By seeking out others who are better than we are – we are able to improve.  When we lose our temper – we lose ourselves, we are no longer learning, and the situation rarely allows anyone to come away unharmed.  Accept yourself even with your limitations.  Practice and mastery of trivial things will allow us mastery of larger, and more precious things.

Hopefully not too much like a fortune cookie…  Yet there it is.

Years ago, I was preparing a meeting room.  50 minutes to help a team (in a defensive posture) get into some actionable technical debt that they had been criticized for by management.  It occurred to me to leave my shoes at the door.  I was treating that time/room akin to a dojo or safe place to learn.  Enlightenment.   It was simply a visual cue when combined with a few more analogies, helped quickly calm the team to get on into the work.   By picking them up and out of a combative context, it was fairly easy to help the team focus.  We flew through an exercise to identify, recommend priority and value for this technical debt.  All of which was from legacy code and project initiatives remaining prior from their adopting scrum.  We even had fun.   ( I did have clean socks and didn’t force anyone to remove their shoes.)

As Ever – if there are any challenges you are facing, a book that especially resonated with you, or you would simply like to share…  please.


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