Kihon, Kata, and Kumite

In a recent post, I spent a couple of paragraphs describing how you might help a new manager learn how to manage people, and came up with a combination of incredibly banal advice (“buy donuts!”) and vague and unhelpful handwaving (“people are different”). This bothered me, so I wanted to sit down and attack the problem in a more meaningful way.

As I think through the various management books I’ve read, and the formal training and mentoring I’ve had, it occurs to me that they’ve fallen into two major categories. The first was highly-specific skills training, in which (for instance) you learned how to turn a conversation around; how to break bad news; how to do risk management; how to find and pursue talent; how to interview. This is tactical training, and can be very useful, if you can put it into practice quickly enough not to forget.

The second type was more holistic, focusing on a particular conceptual approach to problem solving. As part of this there were frequently exercises to complete, and concrete skills to practice, but the main goal was to redefine the way you thought about a particular subject. For instance, Scrum isn’t just a collection of concrete tasks designed to bring projects under control, it also seeks to change the way the participants think about project management and flow. Similarly, MBTI isn’t just an inventory of 16 different personality types, it’s a framework for thinking about different people, their strengths, and weaknesses.

Before I go into these ideas in more detail, I’d like to tell a very short story.

A long time ago, far, far away, there was a country where rival warlords fought for control over land and resources, as warlords do the world over. The commoners were used as fodder in an unending stream of battles, and it was the rare family that hadn’t been touched by the conflict.

In one village, there was a secret school where the peasants learned to fight against the weapons of the warlords.

There were three cornerstones to the training. The first was kihon, the practice of basic movements. Punch, kick, block, grab, throw. Again and again, for hours, and days, then months and years. Practicing to build speed, to build strength, to achieve an optimal movement, to make the optimal movement so natural that the muscles couldn’t do otherwise.

The next was kata, a series of attacks practiced against imaginary opponents. Far from being mere combinations of kihon, these resembled nothing so much as abstract dance, a series of gatherings and releases of energy, a discipline of balance and breathing, each a fluid exposition of a single concept of motion and combat.

Last was kumite, or sparring, actual combat against an unpredictable foe with only the final blows held back.

Without the discipline of kihon, a student’s attacks would be clumsy, weak, ineffectual. Without the kata, the student would never be able to move fluidly from one attack to another, or think strategically. But without being put through the crucible of kumite, a student would never achieve mastery of either kihon or kata.

Whether it’s martial arts, people management, or personal development, these three concepts are equally valid. Let’s go through them in some more detail.

Kihon

Kihon are your core competencies, the skills you use to complete basic tasks on a daily basis. They are concrete, specific, typically straightforward, and can be learned from co-workers, books, seminars, coaches, or come up with on your own. Kihon can be described relatively simply, and shouldn’t take a lot of skill to perform. The key to kihon isn’t usually skill, hard work, or genius – it’s attention, will power, and focus.

Processes are company-mandated kihon for standardizing the approach, and reducing the chance of failure, for certain common tasks. Best practices are kihon that have stood the test of time. Here are some examples of kihon, from the ridiculous to the sublime:

  • Demonstrate caring: Bring in baked goods for your team; take them out to lunch; buy small gifts (~$10) for them at the holidays.
  • Be highly reliable: Always carry a notepad, and keep a concrete list of promises you’ve made with checkboxes next to each. Diligently follow up with each, getting to zero checkboxes by the end of every day.
  • Celebrate success: Find a way to praise every member on your team, at least once a week – without fail.
  • Demonstrate gratitude: Say “thank you” when someone tries to help, even if you didn’t need the help.
  • Control your diet: Bring your own lunch to the office, even when one is provided.
  • Make more sales (or hires): Make one more call at the end of the day, every day.
  • Manage crises: Communicate problems as soon as they arise; don’t hold back information, even when it’s embarrassing; don’t seek to assign blame – focus on the problem at hand.

Individually, none of these are hard – you don’t need talent to bring the team donuts, it just needs to occur to you. You don’t need to be brilliant to keep a checklist of commitments you’ve made, but you do need to remember to carry a notebook around, write down the promises as they occur, and follow up on them. You don’t need to work long hours to be able to say thank you or to praise people for their achievements, but you do have to be paying attention, and make a point of including it in your day. None of these require special skills. They require something more precious and rare – attention, thoughtfulness, and the willingness to prioritize tasks that are important but not necessarily urgent.

The problem with kihon is that they can be either ineffective or destructive if misapplied, or overapplied. Publicly praising a very shy, private person can be embarrassing. Bringing in store-bought cupcakes to celebrate the birthday of a person with potentially fatal nut allergies is, shall we say, the opposite of demonstrating thoughtfulness.* Using a risk management strategy best suited to an underperforming junior developer can feel like micromanaging to a senior engineer. Kihon are tools, and need to be applied appropriately, not indiscriminately.

A Word on Anti-Kihon

There are many, many different types of kihon, and unfortunately not all of them are positive. What got you here won’t get you there contains a compendium of common anti-kihon – i.e., maladaptive habits – and strategies for overcoming them. These include things such as “the need to win at all costs”, “adding our 2 cents to every conversation”, “passing judgment”, “claiming credit we don’t deserve”, and so on. Anti-kihon usually start off as adaptive actions, but somewhere along the line they started hurting us without our noticing. For example, that acid sense of humor might once have been a way to get attention and laughs, but now it just alienates and hurts people.

Unless you’re perfect (hint: you’re not), there are things you do which annoy and possibly infuriate other people. There are things you do which damage your relationships without your realizing it. And trite as it sounds, the first step is to realize that you have a problem. The second step is to figure out what your problem is (or what they are). This is where tools like 360-degree reviews or coaching can be useful. Likewise, your boss/mentor probably has some insights. The question isn’t if you have anti-kihon, it’s which ones, and what you should do to overcome them.

Kata

If kihon are the “how”, kata are the “what”, the larger philosophical frameworks we use to inform our behavior. They can be subtle, difficult to explain, and highly abstract. There are several common ways to learn new kata – having a great teacher or role model, reading a book, attending a seminar… But most people fall into a kata by chance, unthinkingly choosing an approach that matches their basic personality. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you’re naturally a detail-oriented, friendly authority figure who communicates proactively, follows up meticulously on all promises, provides frequent positive feedback, and enjoys performing risk management. You see the problem – there are lots of things a manager is supposed to do that we almost never do outside of work, or as individual contributors, and that we aren’t programmed to do as part of our natural kata. It’s a truism that most technical managers move into their positions without any training. How many never give praise, excusing themselves by saying that they don’t know how to do it without sounding fake, or that the absence of negative feedback is itself praise? How many take credit for their team’s success? Or spend too much time on technical tasks instead of managing the team, because it’s how they’ve been successful in the past?

For many of us, going from individual contributor to technical manager is a process of dramatically altering the way we approach our work lives and personas. The content of the work changes, of course, and along with it many of the strategies that used to make us successful. Engineers need long periods of uninterrupted time; managers are interrupt-driven. Engineers write code, which is a pretty concrete accomplishment; managers attend meetings, write reports, assign tasks, and do many other things that can feel very insubstantial. Engineers can get away with being extremely introverted; a manager’s success is highly correlated with her ability to work with and organize other people.

Before one studies Zen, mountains are mountains and waters are waters;
when one gains insight into the truth of Zen, mountains are no longer mountains and waters are no longer waters;
when one achieves enlightenment, mountains are once again mountains and waters once again waters.
– Zen saying

Before learning an appropriate kata, one’s approach to a particular problem will be ad hoc. You may get lucky with your response (indeed, some people are very good at improvisation), but you’ll likely not perform as well as if you had a plan. And, in fact, when you’re starting to learn a kata, you may even perform worse for a while – you’ll be trying to apply its constituent kihon (poorly) in a rigid, rules-based manner, even though the situation might call for something different. When I first made the transition into a management role, I remember being told by one of my team members that it sounded like I was saying things because that’s what some management book said I should say (which was true). But as you gain familiarity with, and expertise in the kata, things become more natural because you become more natural, and you can gain a powerful framework for performing tasks with a minimum of effort.

OK, enough of the abstract description – let’s go through some common classes of kata.

  • Corporate Culture

Every company has its own set of values, rewarded behaviors, and particular ways of getting things done. At TripAdvisor, the mantra is “Speed Wins.” At its most basic, concrete level, this means that we release frequently – weekly for most teams, more often for others; projects are short so that we can throw up a minimal viable feature (or 404 test), see how it performs, and iterate quickly; everyone works full stack, so projects don’t block while waiting for specialized resources to free up; and so on. But when you’ve worked at TripAdvisor for a while, you begin to understand that “Speed Wins” isn’t just about these specific, concrete kihon. Rather, it’s about staying close to our startup roots. About asking, what would a startup do in this situation? Would they schedule an important meeting for three weeks from now, because that’s when everyone has an open slot? Or just make it happen this afternoon? Would they have a huge QA department, or would engineers be responsible for their own code? Would architects tell engineers what to do and how to do it, or would everyone be empowered to decide how to write their own code? Would there be an extremely heavy process to guard against every contingency, or just enough to make sure the most common and/or damaging problems were avoided? The kata doesn’t define what the company’s goals are, but it gives you a paradigm within which to achieve them.

  • Personal Development

Kata are viewpoints, tools for understanding the world and more effectively living and working within it. When they relate specifically to individual performance, they can be powerful tools for personal development. As such, books that describe management kata can sometimes seem very similar to self-help books. Some examples: Who Moved My Cheese, Be the Hero, Your Brain at Work. In each case, the author gives a conceptual framework, then provides concrete kihon with which to learn and reinforce the larger vision. Just practicing the kihon isn’t going to create immediate change, but it’s a necessary step in coming to understand and embrace the kata at a deeper level. Although doing does, to some extent, lead to being, you also have to believe in the approach, which can take time, multiple readings, and a fair amount of introspection.

  • Project Management

There are many different kata (i.e., methodologies) for project management, from waterfall to scrum, and everything in between. As in other cases, project management kata are tools for thinking about the structure and organization of a project. Likewise, blindly applying a particular kata can easily result in disaster – the tool has to meet the needs of the specific project. E.g., waterfall might make sense in a big defense contract, but not for a web startup. Project management is hard, and knowing which kata to use, and how to use the various kihon contained within that approach, is an art learned over many years of doing things the wrong way. As an example, Rapid Development – one of the classics on software project management – has a section devoted to 27 different “best practices”. Are all of these kihon *really* appropriate for your project?

  • People Management

Managers differ widely in their personal styles. Some are formal, highly organized taskmasters who can consistently bring projects in on time, but lack rapport with their teams. Others are effusive and disorganized, beloved by all, but are unreliable and can be frustrating to work with. Some are charismatic leaders who work to gain consensus for their own visions, others are technocrats who focus on implementing other people’s ideas. There are many, many paths up the mountain, with different people management kata being relevant in different situations. E.g., An extremely hierarchical command and control approach might work well in the military, but would be particularly ill-suited to motivating and managing engineers in a startup environment.

Some examples of people management kata:

  • Theories of personality: MBTI, HBDI, DiSC, etc. Each of these personality type indicators provides a structured way of thinking about and evaluating people, their strengths, weaknesses, and styles of communication, that goes beyond a mere set of categories. The danger is that they can sometimes be used to restrict people from opportunities due to hypothetical disabilities. When used effectively, however, they can both provide individuals with insight into their own Weltanschauung, and give the manager a tool for communicating with and understanding very different team members.
  • Formality: Different managers cultivate different styles in interacting with their subordinates. To some extent, these are a natural outgrowth of an individual’s personality, but they can also be chosen consciously. For instance, a younger manager might intentionally choose a more formal mode of interaction, dress, speech, etc., in order to offset her perceived lack of experience and enhance her status as an authority figure (I know a particularly youthful doctor who did just this). On the other hand, taking a more formal approach can be offputting to younger staff. And, of course, it’s difficult to pull off a completely different style without seeming fake.
  • Short- vs. long-term: When managing a team, in addition to personal development, team-building, reporting, and maintaining morale, you also occasionally have to complete projects. Crazy, right? Most of the time, you can (and should) take the long-term view about your team – i.e., give them opportunities to try stretch tasks, swap them with other teams to help them learn about different kinds of problems, schedule weekly book discussions, promote a reasonable work/life balance, etc. However, in the (hopefully) rare crisis situation, you need to put people on tasks where they’ll be maximally efficient, keep them on the team through the end of the crisis, cancel unrelated personal development sessions, restrict vacation time, and sometimes ask them (very rarely, very respectfully, and with the understanding that they can say no) to work longer hours in order to achieve a team goal. I want to emphasize that this should be the rare case – when it becomes normative (i.e., in deathmarches), it’s no longer a crisis – it’s just poor project and people management.

Kumite

The last of the three cornerstones is, in some ways, the easiest to describe. Reading, coaching, workshopping, and roleplaying are all valuable for building skills (or priming the pump), but to truly develop expertise you need to apply it in the heat of battle. Over time, you’ll become comfortable with your various kata and kihon, and you won’t have to consciously think about doing them anymore – they’ll just be a normal part of who you are and how you get things done.

A lot of prizefighters have noses that have been broken over and over again. You likely won’t get it right on the first try (if you do, don’t get cocky!), and you may get a little beat up when you’re first getting started. That’s normal. It takes time to figure out how to do things, and you can’t learn just by sitting in a room, reading books, and imagining what it would be like to put a kata or kihon into effect.

With kihon, you simply have to do them, over and over. For the most part, they aren’t hard to do, so the key here is to set yourself up to succeed. Promising yourself that you’ll do something, then hoping that you’ll remember, is the least effective approach (how long does the average New Years resolution last?). It’s preferable to keep a list of things that you want to do, and check them off as you go through the day. Or schedule a meeting with yourself for the beginning or end of the day – put it on your calendar! – and go over your checklist then. Marshall Goldsmith recommends getting a buddy to keep you honest by forcing you to report on how you did, every day. Or monetize it – put a dollar in a jar every time you fail to do a kihon (or do an anti-kihon you’re trying to stop), and donate it to charity (or the team) when the jar gets full.

Kata are more difficult to master, because mastering a kata means that you’ve changed the way you think about something at a very deep level. Yes, there are some kata that are mostly collections of kihon (project management methodologies come to mind), but for the most part they’re a bigger philosophical commitment. The mental switch necessary to move from an extremely hierarchical, highly structured organization to a small, flexible, flat organization can be very difficult. Changing one’s self-image, and approach to life, from victim to hero is hard. Moving from a technical to a management role, with all of the required changes in approach to co-workers, priorities, etc., can take a very long time to get right. You have to become someone new, which is another reason why gradualist strategies can be very effective.

Training

Some things to think about if (when!) you’re setting up training for your managers (or yourself!): Are you looking to teach them concrete skills, or more general ways of conceptualizing their jobs? Are you trying to prepare them for dealing with a specific problem, or trying to open their eyes to a new way of thinking? Kihon-based training is usually a pretty easy sell – the benefits are clear, there are concrete takeaways, and people have the sense that they’re learning something useful. Kata-based training is potentially much more impactful, but it’s abstract, which some people find more difficult to work with. And kumite, though critical for solidifying the learnings, is harder to practice in a controlled setting.

A Final Note on Flexibility

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack Up

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.
– Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance

It should go without saying that you’re not going to find one universal approach for all situations. The same kihon or kata applied indiscriminately will get you in a fair amount of trouble. Even so, most people find one approach and stick with it, either avoiding situations in which it’s inappropriate, or getting beat up when one comes up. They get very good at that one thing, but end up not having options when thrown into an unfamiliar situation. Some projects need to be agile, others need to be waterfall. Some people need to be hand-fed, others thrown out of the nest. The more cross-training you can do – even when it seems irrelevant to your current challenges – the more adept you’ll become at handling the unexpected.


* Yes, I did this once. Yes, it was very embarrassing.

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