Agile SCM: Martial Arts Principles


The authors look at software configuration principles in terms of how they might relate to the martial arts. They discuss ways to learn new skill and master them, how to handle conflict, energy, efficiency, and timing.

We've been looking at principles of other fields such as OO and seeing how they translate to SCM principles. In a variation on this theme (and because of personal interest), we wanted to write about what the principles and practices of martial arts might have of relevance to us as SCM practitioners.

Which Martial Art is Best?!
Of course there are myriad different types of martial arts with some very different outlooks and approaches. There are also many similarities, for example there are limits as to the number of different ways in which you can manipulate the human body, so different arts may have independently discovered very similar if not identical techniques (and effective techniques are often "borrowed" in any case).

Anyone practicing martial arts will get asked "which martial art is the best one to study", often with the initial expectation that there is only one answer. The answer of course starts with a question - "why do you want study martial arts?" - effectively this is saying "what are your requirements?".  Some excellent advice is to be found in FAQ for rec.martial-arts:

It depends heavily on your objectives, but remember, these may change with time.  Many people who begin martial arts training strictly to learn self-defense become quite interested in other aspects as their training progresses.

Someone who is young and fit may be more attracted to one of the apparently more physical arts, whereas an older person, whose body is starting to creak and ache a bit may focus on other factors.

Looking more at some of the common themes in martial arts, we think it is interesting to consider where the processes and philosophies are similar.

Learning the Skills and the Path to Mastery
The Japanese have the concept of "shu, ha, ri" in which applies to martial arts, but also other skills from dance to calligraphy. Summarising briefly, in Shu you learn the techniques (the outward forms) and perhaps history of the school or style. The focus is on  replicating what the teacher demonstrates. In traditional schools and training methods, shu can last for years, or even decades. It is not the time to be demonstrating your individualism!

Ha is when you start to gain a deeper level of understanding or insight into the techniques, and really appreciate what a particular technique is really achieving, and perhaps why a detail which may at first appear insignificant is actually rather important. It is also a stage where your techniques may start to have a different outward appearance to those of your teacher, and indeed is often considered the point where you may "break" from your teacher and start to go your own way.

Ri is where overt techniques disappear and there is freedom to improvise and yet be true to fundamental principles. This is a level of mastery which is not often achieved.

This concept occurs elsewhere - Bruce Lee's Jeet Kune Do refers to: "learn the principle, abide by the principle, discard the principle".

George Leonard in "Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fullfillment" refers to martial arts as well as many other sports and activities:

    • Mastery is the Path not the Destination
    • Progress is a series of spurts of improvement separated by increasingly long plateaus of seemingly little learning or understanding. Almost always those who are at the top of their field are the ones who love to practice (love the plateaus).
    • The essence of boredom is to be found in the obsessive search for novelty. Satisfaction lies in mindful repetition, the discovery of endless richness in subtle variations on familiar themes.
    • The courage of a master is measured by his or her willingness to surrender. This means surrendering to your teacher as well as to the demands of your discipline. It also means surrendering your own hard-won proficiency from time to time to reach a higher or different level of proficiency.

In the more intellectual field of SCM, Ha perhaps equates to patterns demonstrating the underlying principles. The intellectual skill and experience required to recognize when patterns apply needs to be reinforced with the skills and experience regarding effecting change in the appropriate environment. Abstract patterns and techniques are irrelevant if they can't be applied while recognizing the appropriate cultural issues that are relevant and how to address them.

Often we focus so hard on the technical side of an art that we neglect the subtle qualities of relationship that are crucial to masterful interaction. We mindlessly inflict our techniques upon our partner, the planet, the ball, the team, the instrument. Mastery, on the other hand, is a thoroughly open and creative experience - the ability to relate to each particular situation and to any changes that occur.
                                        -Peter Ralston, Founder of Cheng Hsin

Peter Ralston has a rather non-traditional take on the process of studying and learning. He suggests starting with principles and an almost Zen based focus on clearing the mind of the filters that shape our perception of reality. Use your own experience to investigate conscuiosness directly, rather than someone else's talk of "mysterious powers". An interesting man, he demonstrated the effectiveness of his ideas by being the first non-Asian to win the World Championship in full-contact martial arts in 1978. See his books in the references.

Seek not to follow in the footsteps of men of old; seek what they sought.
                                        -Matsu Basho

Handling Conflict
One connection with martial arts that has written about quite a lot over the years is how martial principles, particularly of aikido can be applied to dealing with and resolving conflicts.

In some eyes, aikido is a soft and elegant art with the ideal being that you can receive your attacker's energy, lead it and redirect it in an almost effortless manner. But aikido is sometimes criticized for being somewhat "airy-fairy" and impractical - of little use in "real combat". Of course there are a great range of aikido styles from hard to soft, some much more overtly martial than others.

The principles pertaining to conflict include centering of yourself and your energy, and receiving and blending with the "attack" whether physical or verbal. This avoids confrontation and can make a big difference in the outcome to a conflict situation. Note that blending does not just mean not reacting to the attach or ignoring it in a passive manner, but instead acknowledging the attack (physically you move next to the attacker in an aikido move known as tenkan). Books and articles on this area include those by Thomas Crum's "The Magic of Conflict" and David Baum's "The Randori Principles: The Path to Effortless Leadership" - see references at end.

It is important to say that study of almost any martial art is likely to increase your self confidence which will manifest itself as a feeling of increased center and is more likely to make you assertive (although some martial arts or approaches can lead to aggression instead). Aggression often comes from a feeling of insecurity, and so better self confidence is likely to reduce this.

SCM is about managing change to people (and the processes they use) as well as the managing of change to configuration items, so dealing with conflicts is important. Careful introduction of new processes leaning more towards encouragement than unforgiving enforcement, usually lead to less conflict and greater progress. Make it easy to do the right thing. Blend with the energy of the developers and acknowledge their concerns before attempting to influence and lead them.

Energy, Efficiency and Timing
Most martial arts deal with energy, although a fairly crude divide between internal (more energetic) and external (often characterized by strikes or blows) might suggest that many arts don't. At the higher levels, this is usually not the case - but maybe energy isn't so explicitly taught or trained. Instead it is something people learn by hard experience and training. Important factors are: relaxation, sensitivity and awareness.

It may seem counter intuitive at first but relaxed muscles can move much faster than tense ones. Even such an overtly muscular movement such as a punch can be made much more powerful when done with appropriate relaxation.

Dave Allen in "Getting things Done" refers to his karate experience of power being generated from your ability to relax. He moves from this to being able to get things done faster only if you can slow down:

Retreat from the task at hand, so that you can gain a new perspective on what you're doing. If you get too wrapped up in all of the stuff coming at you, you lose your ability to respond appropriately and effectively. If your inbox and your outbox are completely full, or if people are screaming at you, then it's difficult to back off and think about things at a different level.

One key difference between a novice and a master is often the energy expended vs. the result obtained. The master evades the attack just in time and just barely, but then follows up and effortlessly takes the balance of the attacker by sensing their weak point. The novice's movements are much larger and less focused, and they may expend a lot of effort in trying to force the attacker to the ground without realizing they haven't taken the attacker's balance and the attacker is well balanced and able to resist.

Sensitivity and awareness allow you to sense what is really happening and be able to respond to it with appropriate timing. They can be trained to levels that start to appear spooky. One of the authors has been present at workshops where people have started reliably sensing (slow) attacks while blindfolded with some fairly brief instruction and practice. Developing this to real practical usage takes time and practice, but the basic capabilities are available to all of us.

Peter Ralston writes:

How skillfully we perform in any situation depends on how clearly we can perceive what is occurring. Those who respond effectively can do so because they perceive more clearly what's actually there, instead of ignoring what's there or confusing it with what they think or hope is true.

In the development and SCM world, our ability to sense what is happening, and the dynamics of the interaction within a team have a great effect on our ability to influence people. Being centered, as mentioned in conflict resolution, allows relaxation and the ability to sense the movement of energy and really discern what is happening. We have no doubt all had the experience of enthusiastically explaining an idea that seems to be being received extremely well. At some point we become so wrapped up our own idea that we don't notice the initial positive response has turned into a glazed look until it is too late (this happens just as often in social situations as it does in business!).

The timing of when we apply our tools and techniques obviously makes a difference as to their effect. The difference in cost between defects in requirements as opposed to released systems is well known.

Timing and achieving results are also part of the Taoist philosophy of wu wei - "effortless action" or "effortless doing". Wu wei is often associated with water and its yielding nature - picked up by Bruce Lee in his development of Jeet Kune Do - "be like water" and "economy of motion".

George Leonard also writes about keeping the flow of energy going during low moments as well as high. You can't hoard energy; you can't build it up by not using it. Thus keeping our systems and processes running smoothly and regularly is more effective than letting problems pile up.

Wider Benefits to Life

It is only... when emotion and intellect, hands and feet can meet the demands of the changing situation that a decision over life and death lies with oneself and not with the opponent.
                           -Chosen Shissai, 18th Century Japanese Swordmaster

And yet we need to come back to fundamental question: why are we doing it at all? What are we doing to improve ourselves as well as our skills and our mastery? The Japanese concept of fudoshin describes a spirit of unshakable calm and determination, courage without recklessness, rooted stability in both mental and physical realms.

We all of us need to take hard decisions at points in life, and how we deal with these situations in particular can define us. And yet the everyday business of living, developing software and managing its configurations requires countless small decisions. If haven't thought of the wider picture, and of the principles that we are trying to embody, then the picture that evolves may be much less than its potential.

As mentioned at the start, this is a very wide topic, and can be fruitfully mined for many insights. We will save for future discussion areas such as Taoist thought, and Sun Tzu's The Art of War!


    • "Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fullfillment" by George Leonard
    • Cheng Hsin,
    • "Cheng Hsin: The Principles of Effortless Power" by Peter Ralston
    • "Zen Body-Being" by Peter Ralston and Laura Ralston
    • "Getting Things Done" by David Allen
    • "The Magic of Conflict", by Thomas Crum
    • "Aikido & Conflict Resolution: What's the Connection?"

About the author

About the author

About the author

CMCrossroads is a TechWell community.

Through conferences, training, consulting, and online resources, TechWell helps you develop and deliver great software every day.