Skillset development

Lately I exchanged some thought with Alistair Cockburn on his new side over e-mail. Therein I introduced him to some thoughts that raised in my mind while reading through Agile Software Development – The Cooperative Game and Extreme Programming Explained and he told me to try the terms out for a while. Therefore I decided to introduce the thinking behind it for everyone. To introduce you in the topic I will first explore some definitions from the Extreme Programming (XP) and Agile world and try to relate them to the thoughts from the Cooperative Game.

Extreme Programming

This chapter describes the initial thoughts from Kent Beck on the relationship between practices, principles and values in XP. The initial of view of Kent are complemented with the thoughts from James Shore.


The XP practices build up a key set of actions to follow in order to get into the XP way of thinking. Practices are the entry point for teams new to XP. They build the first insights on how work is being done in the XP way of thinking. Practices are clear, so that everyone knows if they are followed. Practices are situated in that they just tell you what to do in a particular circumstance. They are not applyable in the rest of your life. In the second edition of Extreme Programming Explained Kent distinguishes between two levels of practices: the Primary and the Corollary.

The Primary Practices are introduced to get started right from scratch. These build up practices everyone should be able to start with right now without any dependence – beside the will to apply them. Among these practices there are advises like Sit Together, Whole Team, Pair Programming, Slack, Ten-Minute Build and Continuous Integration – just to name a few. The Corollary ones build up practices which might be difficult to implement without following the Primary ones. Among these there are Team Continuity, Code and Tests, Single Code Base or Daily Deployment.


As Mr. Beck describes in a wonderful picture, since practices and values are an ocean apart, principles build the bridge between them. The principles make the clear practices relate to the universal values. Principles make the XP team realise, why they are doing a particular practice and lead to the higher-level, universal values behind these. Among the XP principles there are Humanity, Mutual Benefit, Reflection, Flow, Quality or Baby Steps – just to name some examples.


Values form the universal underlying part of the practices. XP values Communication, Simplicity, Feedback, Courage and Respect. The underlying value of communication, courage, respect and feedback highly motivate to apply sitting the whole team together as near as possible for example. The principle of humanity demands this. Without the values behind the practices, the latter would be tedious activities fulfilled just since it is denoted somewhere. Values form the motivating factor of the XP practices, while principles give reasons to apply them.


As Robert C. Martin wrote on Object Mentor summarizes how XP relates to the four Agile values and the twelve principles mentioned in the Agile Manifesto. Alistair Cockburn writes, that the people who signed the Agile Manifesto did not dare to go deeper into the materia and try to agree on common practices. Robert C. Martin perfectly describes, why the XP practices meet the Agile values and principles, but XP is just one of several applications of the Agile values and principles turned into practices.

The Cooperative Game

Alistair Cockburn introduces in the Cooperative Game the ShuHaRi levels of skillset development. The small words Shu, Ha and Ri are taken from the Aikido domain and Alistair maps them to the skillset in software development.


Shu means to keep, protect or maintain.

In the Aikido domain the Shu level is related to a student just beginning to learn the techniques. Therefore the Shu level is the entry point for new skills to learn. The student is taught to apply the techniques by copying them and follow the teacher’s advises by his words. The protection on the Shu level is to avoid early distraction of the student by the several existing techniques around. The student shall be able to focus on practical advises – on practices.


Ha means to detach and means that the student breaks free from the traditions.

After following the practices, the student starts to question the practices rather than doing just repetetive activities. At this second level it is realised what the underlying purpose of the initial teachings is. In the human grow-up process this stage could be compared to the puberty of teenagers, who start to question the practices they initially just copied from their parents and other children in their surrounding environment.


Ri means to go beyond or transcend.

On the third and last stage the student adapts the previously learned practices to meet his own style. While applying the principles she just became aware of, the underlying values are realised and followed.


Basically my current picture of Agile, XP and ShuHaRi consists of practices to follow on the Shu entry level of skillset development. When trying to get an Agile mindset, you need to start with particular practices on the Shu level. Since you just start to get into it, you need to learn the practices by the word in order to not get distracted by your previous working-habits and values.

On the Ha level there are principles which give you the reasons for particular practices. When the applications of the underlying practices got firm into your mindset, you will begin to question particular activities. You will only get to realise the underlying principles, if you have followed the practices on the Shu level long and thorough enough. This is the point in time when adaptation has taken roots. You should be now in place to see the larger picture behind your working-habits and be able to begin to change some of the details and try to fit variations of the practices to your particular circumstances. You should be able to start adaptation. For this phase to start it is essential to have followed the practices by the book – as strinkingly denoted in How To Fail With Agile.

After realizing what does work and what not through adaptation, you will be able to see the universal parts of your new skills. On the Ri level you will start implementing the values naturally without even thinking about them.

To conclude my proposal, the Ha level of skillset development builds a bridge between the Shu and the Ri level. On the Shu level you follow the practices by the book, on the Ha level you start to realise the underlying principles of the particular methodology you’re following and on the Ri level you see the whole world in values and start adapting your own style. This is the quintessence.


Since I have a strong background in software testing, personally I would like to try to define practices on the Shu level, principles on the Ha level and values on the Ri level for software testers. Elisabeth Hendrickson, Lisa Crispin and Brian Marick did very good thoughts on the theses topics, but I have not seen the ideas structured as I tried to sketch here. If my proposal turns out to be valueable, this might become future work for Agilists.

Since I asked Alistair Cockburn to do a review of the text, he already was able to add a note on his blog on it. Thanks Alistair.

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9 thoughts on “Skillset development”

  1. Hi,
    Interesting read.
    A brief description on Aikido would always help.I had to keep guessing till I opened Wikipedia to find it out.
    Please keep me posted on how you went on to define “practices on the Shu level, principles on the Ha level and values on the Ri level for software testers” :)

  2. A like the anology very much. It really shed much needed light on the relationshp between practices, principles and values (for me).

    I really would like to see how you can translate that into the software testing wrold.

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