Bruce Lee – The Agile Dragon

If you have been doing Scrum or Kanban for a long time now, let me tell you this – you can do waaaaay better.

The best

When I was a kid, my uncle opened a VHS rental, so obviously I could watch what I wanted for free. I think I have seen all the movies he had (apart from the XXX section, which there was none – wink wink nudge nudge). I had 3 favorite genres – sci-fi, horrors and martial arts. The last was in an abundance those days and especially the hong-kong kung-fu ones. My heroes at that time were Bruce Lee (I asked Santa for Nunchaku, he thought it was a bad idea), Jackie Chan (I tried to reproduce his drunkard style once – I regret it till now) and of course Chuck Norris (but he’s a hero to everyone). I was running around, pretending to be Bruce Lee, kicking and hitting everything in my way. Little did I know that Bruce would become my greatest hero again. The secret lies in the fact that he was the best.

Agile Dragon

Bruce Lee was not the best because he had the most media coverage, or because of his awesome six pack. No, the secret lies in his technique. And I really mean his. The history repeats itself constantly, but from time to time new things emerge. One thing, however, stays the same – the way we teach and learn. Ideas, innovation – they don’t just happen, it’s a sum of our knowledge and experience plus that special moment of epiphany. We are taught what others know, but only few of us have the courage to break the patterns and reach for the new, innovate – that’s exactly how the things we learned so far came to be – because of such heroes of the past. Bruce Lee is one of them.
In his early years Bruce was taught by another master – Yip Man the art of Wing Chun (let’s call it Scrum). The following years he kept loyal to the style (with few alterations of his own) and started teaching this slightly different version in U.S. After some time there, came a moment when he realized that Wing Chun is not the way anymore. That moment was a controversial fight (encounters differ on how it actually happened) between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man. The course of the fight or the reason for it are not important. What is important though is Bruce’s realization that the fight took way too much time and that Wing Chun (Scrum), despite Bruce winning the fight (project), was limiting him. He took it upon himself to invent the style of no style, where practicality, flexibility, speed, and efficiency prevail. Enter Jeet Kune DoWay of the Intercepting Fist – the real Agile Martial Art.

Jeet Kune Do is not a classical style with rules, ceremonial movements (like Japanese Kata) or patterns. What it is, is a set of optimized, straightforward movements that are used to intercept and response to an attack in a flexible, efficient and quick way. Compare this to styles like Scrum and Kanban. You have a lot of articles setting the two side by side and helping you to choose between them. Why choose? There’s also a lot of tests, like Nokia test and terms like Scrum-butt telling you that you’re doing it wrong if you’re not doing it exactly as being taught. Should you care?

Well, yes. And no.


We are always looking for quick recipes, solutions to our problems. We want it here and now. I already got feedback from my friends that my articles are sometimes too long, that people look at the first and the last sentence. To them I say – slow down, go deeper and fill in the blanks in your knowledge. I see people like that everyday, spending more time searching for short answers than it would take them to read the long one. All this talk about geniuses and prodigies – they are not born with the knowledge or experience – they just reinforce it quicker and deeper and focus on one thing (imagine Bruce Lee playing basketball – I think I could kick his ass hoping he would not return the favor after the game).
There is a structure to our learning and there is a way to become a (project) master. It’s called Shuhari.

Shuhari is a concept from martial arts and roughly translates to learn, detach, transcend and describes 3 stages of the learning process:
shu (obey, protect) – traditional wisdom, fundamentals, techniques – use Scrum, Kanban, Waterfall by-the-book, 10/10 on your Nokia test, you are aware of the process and learning it is your main focus
ha (detach, digress) – break with tradition, change the rules a bit and make them your own – no Scrum Master? no demo? no limits on Kanban board? whatever works for you, but you still tell everyone that you do Scrum or Kanban, you did not let go yet, and when crisis strikes, you take a step back and abolish changes you made in favor of what you have been taught
ri (leave, separate) – transcend, all is natural, there are no techniques, feeling is understanding – words like Scrum, Kanban, process, they don’t exist anymore, process is not something you think or talk about anymore – you focus on moving forward, and when crisis strikes you have your own answers, which come naturally without a slight hesitation.

It is known that, when we learn or train in something, we pass through the stages of shu, ha, and ri. These stages are explained as follows. In shu, we repeat the forms and discipline ourselves so that our bodies absorb the forms that our forbearers created. We remain faithful to the forms with no deviation. Next, in the stage of ha, once we have disciplined ourselves to acquire the forms and movements, we make innovations. In this process the forms may be broken and discarded. Finally, in ri, we completely depart from the forms, open the door to creative technique, and arrive in a place where we act in accordance with what our heart/mind desires, unhindered while not overstepping laws.

[Aikido master Endō Seishirō]

Life after Scrum

Agile is what you want to be and do. Real Agile is the ri of project management. We need heroes to show us the way forward, teach us Scrum, Kanban, but remember – they came the same way, and as long as you look up to them blindly, you will not see that you can be a hero as well. That said – I’m working in a company of self-made heroes operating on a ri level. For more than a year now we cannot really name our style. It’s not Scrum, it’s not Kanban. It’s not both, it’s not none. But the most important thing is – we stopped trying to name it or describe. We just feel it and the word process has disappeared from our dictionary. That’s the essence of ri.

All fixed set patterns are incapable of adaptability or pliability. The truth is outside of all fixed patterns.

[Bruce Lee]

P.S. For a guy who kicked and punched so much, Bruce has plenty of quotes, which are very insightful for project management (and life itself).


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