Shuhari for product managers

Shuhari is a Japanese martial art concept which describes the stages of learning to mastery. Shuhari roughly translates to “to keep, to fall, to break away” or “follow the rules, break the rules, transcend the rules”.

What shuhari is

It’s what happens when you focus on a practice. It doesn’t matter what the practice is for as long as it involves:

  • A skill that improves when repeated intentionally.
  • Has an established and documented body of knowledge.
  • Has space for novel change.

What shuhari isn’t

It isn’t:

  • A maturity model – it doesn’t give us a stepped or staged approach to improving skills. It’s almost impossible to define the line between shu and ha or ha and ri.
  • A skill assessment framework – it shouldn’t be used to compare one person with another. This is because everyone’s practice is unique to them.

Shuhari for product managers

Everyone starts their practice by learning and following the rules. In product management, this often means using frameworks and techniques without really understanding how or why they work. User stories are a good example. At the shu stage, the product manager focuses on the format and religiously sticks to the ‘As a…’ way of writing a user story. Everyone has to start here.

As they practice, they understand the limitations of sticking to the prescribed format for user stories. They develop the tacit knowledge of how user stories are really just a way of capturing conversations and recording shared understanding. When the product manager learns that how understanding is created and shared is more important than the format it’s recorded, then they are breaking the rules of user stories.

In time, with lots of practice, the product manager learns to apply the reasoning and rationale of user stories without having to consciously think about doing it. They know that user stories are a kind of boundary object. They have transcended the rules of user stories and reached the state of Ri.

Shuhari for teams

Different people on the same team can be in different places. One person might be very experienced and have spent a lot of time developing their skills, whilst another person might not have invested as much effort in their professional. This can cause tension. Someone at Ri could do something because they are so practiced they don’t even think about why they do it, but to someone at Shu, it looks wrong and doesn’t make sense.

Why shuhari matters

We often focus on skills at work but skills are really just the visible manifestation of practice. Shuhari isn’t about the skills; it’s about the practice.

Shuhari tells us that practice and practicing are important for knowledge work roles like product management where there is always more to learn.

Shuhari tells us product managers to get the reps in if we want to be better product managers.