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The “Shu, Ha, Ri” of Lean Startups

I wanted to clarify Slide 18 “There are no rules” from Top 10 Reasons to NOT be a Lean Startup – which apparently has caused some confusion.

I also referenced “there are no rules” in an earlier post, which Andrew Skotzko picked up and riffed upon.

What I am attempting to get across to people interested in Lean Startup/Customer Development is two-fold:

1)  Don’t miss the forest for the trees by mistaking the tactics currently popular now with the actual principles, as well as, perhaps more importantly, the concepts of “shu, ha, ri” applied to Lean Startups.  Bear with me here – I promise you this isn’t bullshit hand-waving territory here.

In the phase of Shu, the person tries to abide by the rules. She tries to learn all the principles and informations by heart. But she can’t abide by all the rules while she is doing the practice. Her body(including her brain) starts to remember them bit by bit through repetitious practices. When the time comes she can internalize and abide by all the rules — when Shu is achieved, Shu phase is finished and she enters into Ha phase.

“Shu” is achieved by actively reading about Lean Startups and Customer Development and talking/writing about them on LSC – and making every effort to learn “The Rules”.

In the phase of Ha, she tries to break the (old) rules. She tries to self-reflect on herself and her knowledge, and come up with anti-theses such as exceptions of the rules in the real world. But she can’t break all the old rules while she is doing the practice. Her rules start to get more complete(or becomes more like “case-by-case”) as the rules encompass exceptions bit by bit. When the time comes she can break all the rules and see the both sides of every rule (maybe substituting with a set of her own rules) — when Ha is achieved, Ha phase is finished and she enters into Ri phase.

“Ha” is achieved when one tries to go out into the real-world and apply Lean Startups/Customer Development and quickly stumbles and falls.  But one gets up and sees some success, often with shins bleeding.  Or doesn’t see any success.  Only failure.  Often the data come back entirely and irritatingly, inconclusive.   This is often very, very frustrating because what we talk about in the blogosphere doesn’t match neatly, if at all, with what actually happens in the chaotic real-life in your startup.  Getting to Ha is accelerated by events like Lean Startup Machine.

In the phase of Ri, she tries to leave the rules. She tries to get free from all the rules, and get into the state of no distinction, or into a new dimension. But she can’t leave all the rules while she is doing the practice. Her body starts to forget them bit by bit through following natural laws and flows (or Tao). When the time comes she can leave all the rules – when Ri is achieved, Ri phase is finished and she enters into a new dimension of Shu.

At the end of Shu, what she sees is nothing but the rules — everything looks like the rules.

At the end of Ha, what she sees is nothing like the rules.

At the end of Ri, she doesn’t see but work with her mind.

Jason Evanish has a great post detailing what is effectively his Lean Startup journey from Shu to Ha and onto Ri.  I have written previously about judo as a Lean Startup metaphor and this fits expands upon that.  Contrary to popular belief, earning a black belt does NOT mean one is considered a expert judo player.  Earning a black belt indicates one has learned the fundamentals and is now ready to unlearn to forget The Rules.

In judo, that means the difference between throwing someone technically perfectly in a sterile fashion and controlled environment.

The throw above, (morote seoi-nage for those of you keeping track at home) is a picture-perfect of the Platonic ideal of that throw.  The throw is executed quickly, without hesitation or flaw.

In the heat of the moment, at the All-Japan judo championships it looks something like this.

Notice how this throw was much less smooth and less elegant, and even a bit jerky and almost off-beat.  Not surprising considering the judo player being thrown didn’t want to be thrown.  But an experienced judo competitor would tell you, for all of its faults relative to the Platonic ideal, it was no less beautiful because it won the match.

To be an effective judo player on the “real-world” of the tatami mat – one has to adapt specific judo techniques to one’s specific anthropometry – but this can only be done once one has mastered the rules of these techniques. Lean Startup and Customer Development are no different.  One has to learn The Rules and specific tactics to really understand that there are no rules.

PS Thanks to Hacker Chick for pointing me to the link on Shu, Ha, Ri.


It is a bit after 9pm here in Boston and both the quantity and quality of validated learning that Lean Startup Machine (Boston) teams have generated is mind-blowing. I am simply in awe. Don’t want to spoil the punchline, but we have had two teams invalidate their startup idea, with pretty strong confidence, in about 1.5 days. Interestingly enough, one team ran into a company that has been at the same idea for 3 years (!) and has been limping along.

Think about the opportunity cost of 3 years. Think about not really knowing for 3 years whether or not your idea has legs —- and then some young punks from LSM Boston crush that idea by getting in front of the major stakeholders and doing a few targeted Customer Development interviews.

Those teams are actually buying future time. Incredible.