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Chris McDermott - I see Social Practices, Social Practices everywhere!

Deliberate Complexity Conferences 2022 Recap


This talk was presented at Deliberate Complexity Conferences - Building Successful Platforms and APIs on 15 June. We are honoured to present the video recording and talk summary below. Enjoy!

Visit our talk recaps ToC page for an overview of all presentations!

Chris McDermott

co-founder at

Chris' presentation (video recording)



  • How does de-contextualising and then re-contextualising a practice relate to documentation? What would be the meaning of documentation in creating practices around a tool? Do agile practices make writing documentation more complex?
  • The tension between practice and use/context?
  • What is the difference between practice and process?

Complexity theory short introduction

"Before we dive into the murky waters of complex adaptive systems, what is a system? Parts that interact to meet a purpose. The parts that interact are interdependent."

When thinking in systems, the emphasis shifts from the parts to the interactions of the parts. Complex (adaptive) systems are a type of non-ordered systems.

Key attributes of a complex system:
- Emergence
- Dispositionality
- Constraints
- Attractors

Most organizations are complex, socio-technical systems.

How organizations approach change has been ineffective

To change an organization, the old framing to separately affect people, processes and technology is problematic: leads to crucially differing perspectives and activities in how to deliver change. The concurrent parts-approach:

  • HR-lead (mindset, culture, company value statements, performance management) -- BUT!

    "looking at the interactions of the parts and integrating the other key fields or the cognition of how knowledge is acquired"

  • BizOps-lead (business process reengineering, target operating models) -- BUT!

    "the understanding of complex systems is distributed but we cannot just put all these pieces together to get a clear understanding of the whole system nor design a future state from there"

  • Propositional knowledge-based approach (digital transformation, codify rules, algorithmic decisions) -- BUT!

    "need humans in customer interactions to use heuristics and procedural knowledge and perspective"

Acting your way into a new way of thinking

"Anyone wanting to change a culture needs to define the actions and behaviors they desire, then design the work processes that are necessary to reinforce those behaviors." E. Schein

  • The example of NUMMI: changed the practice through a material (the chord), which then would evolve new values and attitudes, and create a different culture.
  • Significantly change the meaning of work. Trophic cascade: the main predator in the environment changed and that allowed the behaviors to change.

Practice as a central unit of analysis

A social practice is a reproducible, routinized shared behavior.
- Integrating Meaning, Material and Competence.
- Taste: know what good looks like - subjective.

A series of practices integrate together to create a Capability.
Practices have an evolutionary cycle: proto-practice --» practice(changing in time) --» ex-practice.
Re-contextualise: share a practice into a different context. Consider meaning, material and competence in the new environment.

Practice sensibility:

  • How we believe we should act
  • How we understand what affordances there are within our context that enable us to act and change how we act
  • What competencies we have to act and how we might change them.

How can practice theory help you see the world and make informed decisions about change

Maturity mapping: visualize practices for how good they are in their environment, and what change we might want to make to get better outcomes.

  • Anchored in the needs of the customer.
  • Position as a function of visibility towards customer (capability chain) and taste value (maturity from conceptual through best).
  • Practice cards describing its purpose, tools used and how ‘well done’ looks like.

Shift the focus from the individuals to the practices. Work is a site of practices, where workers are practitioners.

"Transformation is the progressive accumulation of habits practices." Andrew Clay Shafer, Chris McDermott, Jabe Bloom


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