Bruce Lee and Agile

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”
–Bruce Lee

One of my childhood heroes was Bruce Lee. I’ve seen every one of his movies, most of his Green Hornet appearances as Kato and even a few biopics about his life and tragic end. My brother and our friends practiced and played with wooden nunchaku. All the twirling and whirling with those nunchuks mesmerized spectators. That is, until the moment one of us would inevitably lose control and strike ourselves or each other with them. We all wanted to be like Bruce in “Return of the Dragon”, single-handedly fighting off a gang of thugs with his nunchuks in some back alley in Rome.

My fascination with the martial arts continued in my late twenties when I started attending Karate classes. It wasn’t just the physical activity that appealed to me. Thanks to a great sensei, I loved learning about the history and philosophy of Karate from its roots in Okinawa and Japan to its modern day popularity around the world. One of my favorite books remains “A Book of Five Rings” by Miyamoto Musashi, a 16th century Samurai. I eventually attained my 1st degree (shodan) black belt in Shito-ryu Karate.

When I discovered Agile ways of working and its related growth mindset, I started to see parallels between the martial arts and the Agile mindset. I knew Agile and especially Scrum and Kanban were heavily based on the Japanese Lean Thinking that evolved from the Toyota Production System (TPS). My martial arts background and specifically Karate elevated my understanding to the next level. Here are some basic aspects of Karate and how I think they relate with Agile.

  • Mokuso was a form of meditation that we did with eyes closed at the beginning and end of every class. At the beginning of the class to clear our mind of the day’s events and prepare ourselves to learn. At the end of the class to reflect on everything we learned and prepare ourselves to re-enter life outside the dojo. Think of the core protocols of ‘check-in’ and ‘check-out’ – they feel a lot like Mokuso.
  • Kumite training or sparring was done with a partner in order to simulate combat and to improve each other’s techniques. Each would take turns attacking and defending. A martial arts form of Pair Programming?
  • Kata or forms are used as a way to combine techniques into a pattern. When practiced or performed in sequence, a kata enables students to both memorize the techniques and its applications. Mike Rother popularized the Improvement Kata and Coaching Kata from TPS. Both borrow from the pattern aspect of kata.
  • Kobudo or weapons training enabled students to leverage weapons as part of their training. In combat, weapons (like the Nunchaku) became an extension of the martial artist’s body enabling them to be more powerful. Could we think of the DevOps toolchain as Agile’s equivalent to Kobudo?
  • Styles. There are four major Karate styles: Shotokan, Shito-ryu, Goju-ryu and Wado-ryu. They all share a common focus on self-defense and hand-to-hand combat. However, each has its own nuances. Shotokan emphasizes longer, deeper stances, while Shito-ryu emphasizes more upright stances and speed. Wado-ryu emphasizes body shifting to avoid attacks while Goju-ryu emphasizes deep breathing, grappling and close-range techniques. Don’t you think the cornucopia of Agile frameworks and methodologies like XP, Scrum, Kanban represent our Agile styles?
  • Shuhari. Martial arts students mirror the principle of Shuhari. ‘Shu’ is represented by beginner or junior students known as kohai who start with a ‘white’ belt in Karate. They relentlessly practice the basics including kata. They listen attentively to their seniors and follow their instructions and rules to the letter. ‘Ha’ is represented by senior students known as senpai. They’ve become proficient with the basics and can help teach the basics to kohai. They start experimenting with different combinations of the basics to form their favorite kumite moves and combinations. ‘Ri’ is represented by chief instructors or sensei. And specifically those sensei who have broken away from the basics and developed their own complete style (Bruce Lee did this when he introduced Jeet Kune Do). In Karate, the higher black belt levels transcend physical abilities to value community building and abilities of the mind more. Shuhari is at the core of continuous learning in Agile. But what’s beyond ‘Ri’?

There’s a saying that goes something like, “To learn anew, one must unlearn the old”. Serious martial artists understand this. In Karate, this is visibly demonstrated by the aging of a black belt worn by martial artists. The term “black belt” often evokes admiration or fear in the uninitiated. When you become a 1st degree or shodan black belt, all you’ve accomplished is mastering the basics. As a shodan Black Belt, the real learning can now begin. The more you practice and learn, the more you put on and take off your belt. The more you put on and take off your belt, the more withered and frayed your black belt becomes. Eventually all the ‘black’ disappears and you’re left with what looks like a ‘white’ belt. You’ve come full circle. That’s what awaits us after ‘Ri’ – the mark of a beginner.

Fade to White

2 thoughts on “Bruce Lee and Agile

  1. I like the belt representation of development. I have heard many times about how the gi was tied with just a white belt to hold it closed. After years of practice the belt is never washed and begins to take on some “character”. Eventually the belt just turns completely black. I don’t know if I have ever heard the other side of that where it fades back to white. Thanks for sharing that.


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