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How a Game of Patterns Can Help Software Organisations to Gain Insights and Improve

Patterns can help us to understand how things work and how cultures develop. The game in an organisational system is about recognizing patterns and anti-patterns. According to Tiani Jones, leaders should work on the system rather than in the system and create the conditions for the development and sustainment of good patterns in software organisations.

Tiani Jones gave a keynote about a game of patterns at QCon London 2024.

The behaviour and disposition of an organisation are revealed in its patterns, Jones mentioned. By exploring patterns we can understand more about what a system is disposed to and then create thoughtful action once we’ve gained that awareness.

Putting that deeper knowledge into action is wisdom, as Jones explained:

At one time, I was working with a software development team that tried pair programming. They noticed that they had a pattern of siloed information processing after trying and learning how to pair. They realized that they were not harnessing the knowledge of the group towards problem-solving and it had an impact not just on their "outputs," but on the collaborative nature of the team and their ability to grow skills and develop confidence in their work.

Gameplay fits in from the standpoint that the actual work of building and changing a system is to look at the patterns, Jones said. When you know the rules of a game, it does not mean you know how to play; there is something deeper involved in mastering a game, Jones argued:

You gain tactic knowledge and technique and know-how and taste and strategic acumen through practising a game. Then you begin to notice things beyond the basic rules.

Leaders can enable a generative culture where technology, products, people, and the operating system continuously evolve to enact innovation in the marketplace, Jones argued. They can create conditions for the development and sustainment of good patterns by learning how to notice what generates and develops the patterns they want in the organisation. This happens through going and seeing how work is done themselves, using system mapping techniques, and thoughtful, balanced metrics, as Jones explained:

Ultimately, it is an investment in actions that create knowledge and insight into the work system, versus investing only in pushing development forward to produce outputs (code, designs, etc).

Jones mentioned that we should beware of bounded applicability. Bounded applicability means tools and practices are appropriate for certain purposes. When used inappropriately or for the wrong job or in the wrong context, people lose confidence in the tool and won’t use it when the situation is ripe for that tool or practice, Jones said. Jabe Bloom explains this in his blog post The Golden Birmingham Screwdriver.

People can be addicted to practices as silver bullets, as solutions to problems without knowing if they are meant for their context. In fact, interventions cause problems, Jones said. The point is to learn and build skills in what to measure and what to notice, all centered on the desired outcome, the relationship between your goal and the materialized pattern, Jones added. The sense of taste develops over time and will most certainly involve modulating constraints.

A socio-technical view can help us to understand how software development organisations work. Jones referred to Trist’s whitepaper on The Evolution of Socio-technical Systems, which states:

Organisations which are primarily socio-technical are directly dependent on their material means and resources for their outputs. Their core interface consists of the relations between a nonhuman system and a human system.

Jones argued that small things matter when we take a socio-technical view. The tools, the environment, and people’s proximity to one another, geographies, culture, and so many factors are connected and influence each other. These are things to consider and be aware of when bringing people together to do work, Jones concluded.

InfoQ interviewed Tiani Jones about working with patterns.

InfoQ: What’s behind a game of patterns?

Tiani Jones: The game in an organisational system is to be able to recognize patterns and anti-patterns in the performance of the system and then understand which practices make sense, and to be able to discern when practices are not fit for purpose.

InfoQ: What are the patterns that support a generative organizational culture?

Jones: I am not sure that they can all be named, but I like the way Westrum’s typology describes them. A Generative Culture behaves in a way centered on performance, which means high cooperation, messengers are trained, risks are shared, bridging is encouraged, failure leads to inquiry, and novelty is implemented.

InfoQ: What have you learned from using patterns?

Jones: I have learned how to slow down and take thoughtful action. I have learned to appreciate complexity and emergence and enjoy the experience of noticing what emerges as I use patterns.

Speaking of mapping and analysis tools, I really like the universal patterns that Simon Wardley talks about in his doctrine analysis technique. This can be a nice tool to test which patterns are at play and what moves an organisation to the ones they want, versus those that they don’t.

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