Learning Is Part Of Work

Simon Duffield
August 24, 2021

I came across an article recently, written over 10 years ago, that breaks down how the late jazz great Clarke Terry taught jazz musicians to improvise. Clark, so generous with his talent, mentored young musicians and taught them a process of learning improvisation. The process, so easy to to read and difficult to live (like many worthwhile things, the absence of words portrays its profundity) is Imitation, Assimilation, Innovation. In other words; copy, absorb, and then turn left instead of right.

I’m not a jazz musician, (I’m not even sure how I arrived at this article), but I am deeply interested in better ways of working. Imitate, assimilate and innovate provide an almost concept-for-concept match with the description of progress used by many in the agile software movement. The 14th century Japanese concept of Shu-Ha-Ri was first brought to skills development in software by Alistair Cockburn in 1999. (He has since updated it - download his latest work here).

A paraphrase of the stages are:

Shu - copy the teacher (learn the rules).

Ha - now you understand the rules, learn the underlying principles. Look to other teachers or sources to integrate with your practice.

Ri - you are the rule. ‘Invent and blend’, learn from your own practice.

It could be a coincidence that a jazz legend had virtually the same insight to the mastery journey as a 600 year old Japanese martial arts understanding. But more likely we are on to a universal truth about learning.

EndGame’s Mastery Journey

At EndGame, we’ve bought in to the idea’s that Dan Pink expressed in his book Drive for a decade now. Describing that people are motivated by purpose, autonomy and mastery has given us a useful way to breakdown our thinking about motivation, simplifying a complex topic. Not only that, we’ve found it to be true in our lived experience, which is not always the case with popular ideas.

The inner drive toward mastery is something EndGame has sought to encourage over the years. We have foundational assumptions that people want to do their best work and that they want to get better at what they do - seeking a sense of progress in their capabilities. We believe that learning is part of work, or differently stated, that work happens in the flow of our learning. 

Knowledge work requires both curiosity and performance. One of the best things any organisation can do is to get out of the way so that people can flourish. Having said that, we need to provide safe work, not fitting a person’s current capabilities, but work that gives them space to reach a little further to foster improvement and growth, with the support to make it safe for them in their stage of shu-ha-ri. Dan Pink calls these Goldilocks tasks, and they may well be the main thing that gets us out of our comfort zone but keep us inside our overwhelm or panic zone.

Supporting the Journey

We have adopted a number of practices to support self-driven, organisationally aligned learning and development over the years. Some are familiar, ubiquitous in software, some not so. Below are a few practices we have settled on and refined.


Also referred to as deliberate practice. Think of this as the daily practice of musical scales you did as an aspiring jazz musician. It’s a short time - 15 mins a day - focusing on a practice you want to commit to muscle memory. This could be software engineers practicing coding solutions to problems (maybe using codewars.com), designers solving a design problem a day, agile testers writing gherkin for BDD.


Mob kata! Get a few people together in a room to learn or practice a technique or technology.


Our periodic research and development days to practice delivery techniques, rapid iteration and prototyping.

Communities of Practice

Enthusiasts gather around a knowledge domain to regularly learn, share ideas, document lessons learned, standardise ways of working, advise, and explore new technologies.

Read Books

Read books. Read good books.

Work includes learning, we get that. But what do you do when you want to uplift a group of people at the same time? Well, enter EndGame Academy.

Accelerating the Journey - EndGame Academy

It’s been a dream for many years - and now it’s here!

We launched EndGame Academy (EGA) earlier this year as the vehicle for delivering our internal professional development programmes, block courses and coaching. Built with apprenticeship (Shu-Ha-Ri) in mind, the 6 - 8 weeks tracks focus on key areas to help us in “empowering innovative people to bring their software ideas to life”, propelling us forward both as individuals and an organisation. The tracks are opt-in and designed to iterate every year. Staff register interest in the tracks, regardless of relevance to their role, and participate as part of a cohort. Collaboration, implementation and on-going learning are all part of the commitment.

What tracks have we covered, and what’s to come?

The first cab off the EGA rank was honing our capabilities in Jobs to be Done - learning how to upgrade our user, not just our products - in conjunction with Revealed and Eric White

Next we explored better ways of working together; wrestling with complexity, principles in agile software development, and working in high performing teams.

At time of writing we are delving into Tech Practices; refining and learning practices for delivering exceptional digital products.

Coming soon we’ll look into product management, personal productivity, hard conversations and negotiation.

What’s next?

Learning happens when we reflect. An apprenticeship model of learning while doing, and an iterative approach of continually improving, allows us to try things, to put our best foot forward and not be too afraid to do something unknown. We know we will review it and can make changes in the next iteration.

We favour progress over perfection.

Next? We learn from our experience. Is EGA actually benefiting staff? What impact is it having on EndGame? Are we focusing on the main things? What are the barriers we need to remove? What surprised us? Then we iterate and try again, but better.

EGA is on a mastery journey too. And who knows, maybe there’s some outside EndGame who would like to assimilate, imitate and innovative along with us.

After all, we all want to be great jazz musicians.

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