CMMI and Agile Blog

September 23, 2015

What’s the Difference Between a Practice and a Pattern and How do they each Improve Performance?

What’s in this Blog

In this blog I answer this question, as well as share status of work I am currently doing using the new Essence framework and patterns with two of my clients.

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I recently started reading a great book titled The Pragmatic Programmer by Dave Thomas and Andrew Hunt and was pleasantly surprised to see a discussion on patterns. At a number of conferences I attended this year the subject of patterns and how they relate to practices was a common discussion topic.

So just what is the difference between a practice and a pattern and how do they each improve performance?

To help you understand let me step back and explain some activities I have been involved in over the past few months and how I am using Essence and patterns to help two of my clients improve their performance.

In June this year I talked at the Agile West Conference on the subject of patterns –http://conferences.techwell.com/archives/bscwest-2015/sme-profiles/paul-e-mcmahon.html, and I gave a workshop at Binghamton University –http://www.binghamton.edu/watson/industry/professional-development/programs/essence.html, on the topic of Essence, the new OMG standard (www.semat.org). I explained in my talk how Essence differs from other popular frameworks and how organizations can use it to help discover their own best patterns.   In August I gave a similar keynote address and workshop at Agile Africa.

As I explained in an interview at Agile Africa in August I have started referring to the patterns I am sharing as “thinking patterns” because they help practitioners make better decisions.

Thinking patterns differ from practices in that they set a specific context related to an organization’s current pain points. This is key to getting a discussion going in the organization related to where performance improvement is needed. Essence checklists can be used to help stimulate the discussion– not to tell the team what to do– but to get the team to decide what they should do to improve their performance given their specific situation.

What is great about Essence is that it is independent of any specific method so any team can use it. It doesn’t matter what practices an organization is currently using. It can help teams discover their own best patterns– and anti-patterns they need to avoid– leading to improved practices and better performance.

I have been involved in the software development business for forty-two years and I am only now finally discovering that we have spent a great deal of time defining processes (or practices) and the effort we have put into this activity has in too many cases failed to payback in real team performance improvement because they are not giving practitioners the real help they need to solve many of the challenges they face each day.

We still need processes, but processes help primarily when you are a beginner. Once you have moved past the beginner stage, practitioners often need more focused guidance related to the specific challenges they face each day.   This is where Essence and patterns can help.

As an example, I am finding that Essence is a really good framework to help organizations that want to become more agile to improve performance but are fearful that they might lose critical disciplined engineering processes as a result. This is a valid concern because a lot of companies when they jump to agile, miss essential fundamental engineering practices that they still need to conduct.

Essence provides the fundamental common ground that helps teams continually ask the right questions to ensure they are not losing essential engineering practices as they move their organization to a more effective way of working.

You may have heard the phrase; “With Essence your practices come alive,” and, “Essence practices are what practitioners really do, not what someone thinks they should do. “ I have been using Essence with one of my clients for the past few months to help them address specific pain points, and I am just now getting started using Essence with another client to help them rapidly improve their performance.

What I am learning is that patterns are a great vehicle to make your practices come alive in the eyes of practitioners because they provide concrete examples in how to think through real challenges leading to better decisions given your specific situation.

Over the coming months I am planning to share results from my two current projects and hopefully share successful case studies using Essence and thinking patterns together to improve performance.

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