Essence and Problem Solving Blog

February 21, 2021

Essence Patterns: A simple way to apply just the right amount of structure to fix a problem with– or improve– a culture

Filed under: Essence and Problem Solving — pemcmahon @ 7:30 pm
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In my last blog I explained how you can fix a problem with—or improving – a culture and I gave a client case study that demonstrated how applying just the right amount of structure can improve a culture without adding unnecessary overhead.

In this blog I want to dive deeper into this subject showing you a simple way you can apply just the right amount of structure using an Essence pattern. So, let’s get into it…

People become engaged in their own improvement when they hear stories from peers. Over time I have noticed repeating patterns to the stories I hear and I often share these stories (without attribution) with clients facing similar challenges. I refer to these repeating patterns as “thinking patterns” because they can help teams effectively think-through their own challenges.

When the SEMAT [1] volunteers were developing the Essence checklists [2] I shared many of these stories and the other volunteers shared their own stories.  This was the genesis for many of the checklists that today are in the Essence standard [3].  

Today I use Essence checklists, along with Essence Patterns (discussed below) to communicate the “essence” of common stories relevant to a problem my client may be facing, along with proven solutions.  

In many cases the “essence” of both the problem and solution to these common situations is found to be rooted in culture.         

As an example, going back to Alistair Cockburn’s Spotify Case Study discussed in my previous blog [4], the solution Spotify came up with for managing dependencies was an optimal solution for their organization because it didn’t add the overhead of a Monday meeting and it utilized the existing Spotify culture to solve the problem.  

Similarly, the solution we came up with for my client with the Risk Management challenge (also discussed in the previous referred to blog) was optimal because we didn’t need to change what was already working well in the organization.  We just needed to rely on the existing culture and train more of the organization in the approach, which we referred to as “Doorway Risk Management.”

Nevertheless, all personnel in most organizations cannot be counted on to always provide what is needed to a teammate by a required date, as was the situation in the Spotify Case.  And in my own client case we could not count on everyone in the organization applying the “Doorway Risk Management” process just because that had become the culture for part of the organization. 

To fully implement this proven approach across my client’s organization we added a number of checklists to a one-page guidelines document and shared it broadly across the organization through focused coaching sessions. 

One way to capture this kind of solution to a problem and share it across an organization is through the Essence Pattern.  You can think of an Essence pattern as anything that can help teams conduct a practice more effectively, such as a collection of checklist items. 

You can also think of these checklist items as a set of  “essential reminders.”  As an example, refer to Figure 1 for the Scrum Values Pattern which reminds teams that the successful use of Scrum depends on people living the five Scrum values.

  Figure 1 Scrum Values Pattern

As another example, consider Cockburn’s Spotify Case Study.  In this case, we could have a Collaboration pattern that captures key checklist items, or “reminders” of things to think about to help manage dependencies.  Refer to Figure 2 for an example of an Essence pattern that could be used to capture key checklist reminders related to the Spotify Dependencies Case. 

                 Figure 2 Possible Spotify Collaboration Pattern to Manage Dependencies

It is also worth noting that there could be many more patterns collected under groups, including Collaboration, Deliver, Reflect and Improve as highlighted within the Heart of Agile initiative [5].  

In my own Essence training [6] I share a number of common patterns that I have observed, or my clients have shared with me, along with collections of related Essence checklist items to help teams think-through their own similar challenges leading to the best solution for their situation.

We now know the critical importance of culture to the success of any endeavor.  Many of the most common problems we see with software development teams (or any team for that matter) aren’t easily solved by simple structural fixes alone. 

Nevertheless, using Essence patterns can provide a simple and practical way to add just the right amount of structure to remind teams of essentials to fix a problem with—or improve—a culture. 

As always, comments are encouraged.

[1] SEMAT stands for Software Engineering Method and Theory. For more information refer to

[2] For more information on the Essence checklists refer to

[3] Essence checklists are part of the Object Management Group (OMG) Essence standard. For more information about Essence refer to



[6] Certified Essence-In-Use Practitioner Training,

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