Be like water

As software developers we constantly look to other industries for inspiration. Some like to draw parallels with the construction industry while others look towards product development. It’s within our nature to analyze our processes, practices and principles in an attempt to increase the value of our work, reduce risks and improve quality.

At the moment Lean practices are very much in favor. We’re creating Kanban boards to model our processes. We’re keeping them lightweight and changing them as we see fit. We’re acknowledging that, as development teams, we need to limit our work in progress – that we’re most effective when we optimize the whole. We’re even beginning to estimate new work using actual data we’ve collected.

Where next will we learn our lessons? Logic would suggest a successful industry with a high risk and reward ought to provide some insights. Surely we can learn from the practices and processes of, for example, doctors, pilots, and chefs?

There are some great lessons, and some entertaining parallels, to be found within the martial arts. In particular, we can learn a lot from Bruce Lee. After many years of studying martial arts he came to learn that traditional techniques where too rigid and formal to be practical. Rather than dogmatically using one style of fighting he taught his students to constantly adapt and use different techniques to suite their individuals strengths and needs. Jeet Kune Do, the style he founded, teaches one to use simple and effective motions, to be flexible and to continuously study other forms.

Absorb what is useful; disregard that which is useless.

Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way round or through it.

Whereas most martial arts systems are considered products with a finite number of forms, JKD is considered to be a process. It provides guiding principles or ‘building blocks’ that enable personalized systems; no two students of JKD will have the same style.

Learn the principle, abide by the principle, and dissolve the principle. In short, enter a mold without being caged in it. Obey the principle without being bound by it. Learn, master and achieve.

It’s interesting that Bruce Lee soon realized his students would soon become obsessed with the name “Jeet Kune Do”, that they’d want to join an organization and become certified once it became mainstream.

I have not invented a “new style,” composite, modified or otherwise that is set within distinct form as apart from “this” method or “that” method. On the contrary, I hope to free my followers from clinging to styles, patterns, or molds. Remember that Jeet Kune Do is merely a name used.

To reach the masses, some sort of big organization (whether) domestic and foreign branch affiliation, is not necessary. To reach the growing number of students, some sort of pre-conformed set must be established as standards for the branch to follow. As a result all members will be conditioned according to the prescribed system. Many will probably end up as a prisoner of a systematized drill.

Jeet Kune Do is not an organized institution that one can be a member of. Either you understand or you don’t, and that is that…a Jeet Kune Do man who says Jeet Kune Do is exclusively Jeet Kune Do is simply not with it.

Poignant words of warning.

  1. Joe

    Isn’t what your describing pretty much shu-ha-ri? i.e. rigid formalised learning which gives way over time to exploration and instinctively appropriate behaviour? It’s a fairly generic term used in Japanese martial arts, and I’ve known friends from a kung fu background have their instructors tailor their teaching to their body type. Aikido uses the term “takemusu” to refer to instinctive martial creativity IMHO:

    I’m not sure many students of any martial art would describe their particular style as dogmatic, limited or lacking in flexibility. That’s a label we reserve for all the other inferior styles 😉

    Love the idea of learning from other industries, though I think the corporate structures around them might require some navigation. Here in the UK I wouldn’t expect most doctors consider the NHS to be a good example of an organisation with optimised processes, for instance.


    (P.S. not that I’m knocking Mr Lee, of course!)

    • Joe Campbell said:


      Thanks for your comment and directing me towards Shu-Ha-Ri. I won’t pretend to know that much about martial arts so I was particularly interested to learn of it’s concepts and stages. My search led me to The Aikido FAQ and eventually to the Ward Cunningham’s Wiki. It’s fascinating to read the parallels that Ron Fox, an author of both articles, and many others have already drawn between software development and martial arts.

      You’re right, I doubt we could learn much from the management structure within the NHS but we could learn a lot from the the workers. How do they manage risk – how is triage done? How does one doctor hand off to another at the end of the shift? How are surgeons taught complicated procedures?

      Perhaps a better example of an industry from which we might learn is the animated film industry. How to they estimate and plan their work? I’m guessing they often work to fixed dates so, like us, do they often reduce scope? Do they work in pairs? What happens when a voice actor can’t speak?

      Finally, I didn’t mean to imply that some martial arts systems were dogmatic and inflexible. I’m not qualified to make that judgement. I simply inferred that from reading about Bruce Lee. I hope I didn’t offend anyone


      • Joe

        I’ll see if I can dig out some medical info to answer a few of your questions; quite a few relatives of mine work in healthcare.

        The film industry is a really interesting analogy – there’s an excellent book called Artful Making which you may have already come across which talks about how theatre projects are managed (very creative work; teams that may not have worked before; fixed deadlines; repeatable output):

        On dogma: it’s an accusation that tends to get thrown at everyone sooner or later. I’ve certainly seen it levelled at agile before now…

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