When you first start training in Aikido it is the tricks that hook you. It looks like magic, which it is: consciously executed technique, refined through practice, applying models of human interaction, to manage those interactions. Magic. It becomes more real and stranger when you try it. I have yet to meet someone who wasn’t startled the first time they felt an Aikido technique with their own body. Or who wasn’t amazed the first time their own technique worked. It just raises more questions. When you know but don’t understand, can see but can’t do, sense a problem but not a solution. You’ve encountered something important that you can’t use all the time.

PSL is like that.

PSL is an experiential residential workshop lasting about a week. It uses immersion and simulation to introduce interaction models that are particularly effective in systems development. The content is delivered by example and supported by simple, effective handouts. This material is supported by reflection and feedback along with optional one on one consulting. Several of the models presented are unique. All are effective. At the end of the workshop students receive On Becoming a Technical Leader which is a handbook for the kind of leadership practiced in the workshop.

That keyword description misses the point. PSL introduces a different system describing what you thought you knew about teams trying to build systems. Memorizing the models is trivial. Anyone successful in systems work could memorize the PSL models in an hour. It is harder to make them available to professionals practicing their craft, in real-time. Learning in order use them when you need them takes forever. A week is barely enough time to get started.

The PSL approach to learning resembles Aikido, and the other modern martial ways of Japan. (The modern martial ways end in “do”: Karate-do, Ju-do, Ken-do and so on.) PSL, like Aikido is based on exercises: the reflective practice of techniques and prescribed forms. PSL and the ways use an environment designed for demonstration, practice and reflection to teach principles through techniques. Interacting with the forms and with others within the forms, principles emerge. PSL doesn’t really make the distinction between the theory and the practice. Neither does Aikido. To know is to do.

From flying planes to dance, high-performance is taught through example and observation. Lecture and interrogation aren’t enough. Even in education itself, graduate students work with scholars actively “doing scholarship” vs. talking about scholarship with a quiz every Tuesday. Problem solving with technical teams is a high-performance practice not a written test at a desk. An expression from medieval Japan: “He smells of leaves.” It refers to one who reads, and talks, and thinks, and doesn’t do. This is scholarship, not leadership. Expert test takers “smell of leaves”. PSL is about practicing doing.

The precursors to the martial ways (the combative forms ending in “jutsu” vs. “do”) were developed for warfare. The PSL content comes mainly from family therapy. In PSL there are communication modes, personality types, interaction and change models. Aikido teaches movement, grounding, energy, and extension. Both disciplines teach principles that were initially developed to be more effective when it mattered, sometimes literally life or death. The insights were developed because they were needed, and the transmission methods emerged because they work. Both disciplines teach a practiced awareness, of one’s self, situation, and of others. The original jutsu forms cultivated awareness to be more effective in combat. The do forms practice effectiveness to cultivate awareness. The practice shapes the practitioner. PSL is like that.

The similarity in methods from wildly different times, cultures, and practices suggests something basic about how people learn. There are, I think four keys to learning through experience. At least they are common to the design of PSL, and the martial ways:

• Simulation: Learning through simulation involves a designed experience that extracts and highlights some aspect of reality. Moved out of our homes, businesses, and careers, in PSL we are as distinct from the background of our lives as Aikidoka (“Aikido practitioners”) on the mat. We experience the pure encounter, without distraction.
• Modeling: PSL and the do use demonstration. A technique can never be completely described; can never be completely recorded. The essentials of a practice are communicated by one person observing, another showing “Like this.” The catalogs of transmission in classical budo (boo – dough: “martial ways”) are cryptic. They are more like notes than lectures: reminders of what was learned vs. original sources. The PSL faculty show vs. describe. The description is not the thing.

• Participation: Trainees (not students) in PSL, the do’s and the justu’s practice. They do not sit in lecture or watch the art. The student pose is fundamentally remote and judging: evaluating from a safe distance. There is little humility in a disengaged critic, even one called a student. Practice to emulate a model and you are the subject. PSL is mostly participation. The detached pose is shattered. The practitioner is the encounter being studied.

• Balanced Reflection: Reflection is part of PSL and Aikido. Training in the ways, awareness and reflection are developed through meditation, demonstrations and practice. The habit of active reflection eventually extends to execution, even under stress. Proper technique contains Zanchin (Zan – shin). One translation is “perfect finish”. Another is “remaining mind”. Zanchin means showing the active reflection that was there before, and throughout technique. It becomes a way of life. Real problem solving is continuously reflective, I think.

Aikido is an outstanding analogy for PSL, because both are about the principles of human interactions. Aikido practices techniques (mainly joint locks and throws) designed to illuminate the principles behind the techniques. Like a dojo (doe – joe) literally “place of the way”, PSL creates a microcosm where fundamental, subtle realities are on display. Science works this way. Gasses contracting are difficult to know directly. The parlor trick – sucking an egg into a milk bottle – shows this process unencumbered. The barren-ness of the dojo floor strips away masks leaving the pure encounter, the human interaction with its principles exposed. With just you and another Aikidoka alone on a featureless white mat there is nowhere to hide. The egg gets sucked into the bottle, and we can perceive directly a process that has always been there, unseen.

Science, Aikido and magic teach by managing awareness to see the egg. With participative learning you are the egg. You don’t really encounter a different way to interpret the world, without interpreting the world that way. The martial ways are about encounters between people on and off of the dojo floor. We can learn, if we choose, to approach any encounter as an expression of problem solving leadership or as Ai – ki – do (eye – kee – doe: The “way of blending energy” more or less.) Our awareness of problem solving, or Aikido, in any encounter is our choice. It’s up to us to choose to see the egg or not.

PSL for me was like a weeklong Aikido retreat. A phrase in many martial arts is “stepping onto the mat.” It describes willingly entering a specialized kind of activity designed to create personal feedback: to choose to engage in practice. Stepping onto the mat requires letting go of the safe, critic’s pose to become the object of study. Before you enter the mat, there’s no guarantee what you’ll discover there. PSL is an opportunity, for a week, to step onto the mat interacting with other professionals mindfully solving problems that look technical. With the talent available in PSL, the identified problem isn’t the problem. How you go about solving it is the problem. The real practice in PSL isn’t about using this communication model or that one; it is about choosing to practice awareness and reflection and choice in interaction with others. It’s about bringing the clarity of the dojo floor to every interaction.

Another phrase from the martial ways – “I am training my stomach.” (hara: ha – rah, or tanden: tan – den) “Stomach” in Japanese refers to the abdomen. It is the energetic center of the body. It implies appetite and impulse, desires and habits. Also “center” where you really live – different from the head or the heart which are more common analogies in the West. “Training your stomach” doesn’t effect hunger, so much as what you desire and the place of appetite in your life. Choosing in PSL is a form of training. To be receptive or not, to try a technique or not, to keep a journal or not, even to show up for class or not. In the PSL dojo, there is no escape from questions about effectiveness and intention. How badly do you want to be more effective? What will you choose to do? What will you choose to observe? PSL is a week of choosing to practice techniques of interaction, observation and choice. PSL is “training your stomach”.

Immersive training is sometimes called shugyo (shoo – geeoh: “austere training” sometimes “forging”). Shugyo is choosing to step onto the mat exactly when there is every excuse not to: exhaustion, injury, too much information, fear. It has its rewards. Each hour, you learn more as experiences from the last hour inform this one. The lessons go deeper. They’re more available when you need them. Merely choosing to step onto the mat – one more time – also teaches that you can choose. You can learn that observing and participating – practicing – is a choice that is always available. The late Aikido Doshu (doe – shoo: “keeper of the tradition” – the acting head of a school) said that true Aikido must become a lifestyle. I take that to mean in part that if you put the tools away when life gets rough, you haven’t really learned much. The insights and models in Aikido aren’t just for the mat. Certainly not just to pass a test. PSL is like that.

That’s all a little hard to remember while making the same stupid mistake for the 50th time in a row. PSL was like that for me. “Not again.” and getting up one more time after a hard fall to see if this time I could figure it out. Not using one of the models from PSL is as clear as the inability to move your hand an extra half inch, and turn the wrist just a little more, to get it right when it matters. It is clear what disrupts your stance, what makes you literally lose your mind. It is also clear what is enough of an excuse for you to stop trying. PSL is about the habit of stepping onto the mat one more time, when you’re already sure you’ve had enough. Any tool can become as pervasive in one’s life as language. But that’s a choice, not a guarantee. PSL is about practicing new tools on an ongoing basis, not just learning new words or new moves. This is true of all the do, the “ways”. Leadership is about that, I think.

I encountered Aikido in a small article in a free regional newspaper. When I called, the sensei (sen – say: “teacher”) said: “Come and see.” Well, why not? There was no special demonstration. We spoke a little, and I watched the class in silence. The next class began, and he said: “Come and try it.” And again, why not? What was I afraid of learning? What feedback from the training was such a risk? What was I afraid I might demonstrate, for myself and the world to see? Of course I was startled, when I felt that first technique. My reaction was as plain there on the mat as a banner headline. So, was my choice to embrace this, or reject it? I got thrown. Was my choice to lean how and why, or to avoid the situation and reject the experience? PSL is like that.

Eventually being startled became joy (at least some of the time) and I would laugh out loud, usually while four feet in the air. At one seminar my training partner threw me into a wall. It was just a slip in concentration, under the fatigue of several days training. It happens. That’s part of the point of immersive training. Smiling under his breath Sugano-Sensei whispered “wall-waza” meaning “wall-technique.” It was a sly joke. Encountering the wall let my partner experience his awareness of space, and his management of the training itself. It allowed me to breakfall sideways. I didn’t know I could do that. Another surprising chance to see Ai – ki – do, “the way of blending energy”. You’ve got to blend with an unexpected wall just like contracting gasses need no permission. You don’t get to choose the professional problems that present themselves, either. Leadership has got to be there when you need it.

In the five years since an injury – not Aikido related – I study because I cannot train, while working so that I can train again. I will find out whether this injury is an excuse, or another startling encounter. I will find out how much I was able to translate from the mat to use when I need it. I’m not laughing about it yet. Leadership for me has a lot to do with balancing and time off – for my body to heal, for one thing. Laying off joint locks and throws is an exercise in Aikido. Not that I’m happy about this, or that it is coming easy. But even an injury is an opportunity to practice Aikido, and PSL it turns out. PSL is about practicing awareness and reflection and choice in interactions under pressure. It is about the habit of leadership, practiced on the mat where it is hard to hide. It should probably be called PS-do, the problem solving way. Otherwise, it’s just an enjoyable week with interesting people, where you learn some things.

It turns out that every experience is like that. You’re there with your intention and the tools you brought with you. You can choose how to be: how to act, whether to use the tools you have. You can choose with each action whether to learn what you can, or not. You can choose to accept new information, new models, and new ways to interact, or not. Also whether to lead, or not. You can choose to see what is going on, or try to hide. You can choose to try something different. Some of the tools seem like magic. A taste of doing magic and you want it all to be magic. Then you want to understand what is behind the magic, not just the moves. Getting what you glimpsed takes a lifetime. It is a practice not a result. Aikido looks like magic.

PSL is like that.

Aikido Sources:

Morihei Uesheba, O Sensei (oh – sen – say: “great teacher”) created and headed Aikido until his death in 1969. Aikido continued to grow under the guidance of the late Doshu, Kisshomaru Uesheba and many of O Sensei’s students. Some of O Sensei’s writings, and many of his son’s are readily available in English. Direct students who’s work is available in English include: Yoshimitsu Yamada (US – New York), Mitsugi Saotome (US – San Diego), the late Gozo Shioda, Roy Suenaka (US – Carolina), Morihiro Saito (Japan – Iwama), Gaku Homa (Denver). Probably still the best students’ introduction in English is Ratti and Westbrook’s Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere.

Several American aikidoka have developed materials applying Aikido principles off the mat. Among these are the late Terry Dobson, Tom Crum, Wendy Palmer, George Leonard and Richard Heckler.

The late Donn F. Draeger’s three volume series: The Martial Arts and Ways of Japan explores the evolution of the modern do’s from the historical combative jutsu’s in the context of Japan’s history. Draeger Sensei was one of the first westerners to study martial arts in modern Japan. He held multiple ranks in modern and traditional forms, and was both sponsor and mentor to practitioners of many arts.

Aikido is certainly not the only martial way that uses practice and technique to teach awareness and self mastery. The martial ways all address the same problem: people interacting, and training yourself to be responsible within the interaction. One of the best introductions to the martial ways is C. W. Nicol’s Moving Zen. Mr. Nicol practices and teaches Shotokan Karate.

PSL Sources:

Information on PSL is available on Jerry Weinberg’s web site (www.geraldmweinberg.com). My PSL workshop faculty was Eileen Strider (www.striderandcline.com), and David Schmaltz (www.truenorth.com). The faculty for the other simultaneous session was Wayne Strider (www.striderandcline.com) and Naomi Karten (www.nkarten.com).

Like the community of martial artists, there is a community of software practitioners, consultants, teachers and authors who focus on mindfully practicing systems development. The workshop called “Problem Solving Leadership” is one entry point to this community. Like Aikido, the only way to really begin to understand is to do it.

© 1999, James Bullock