social practice

Mapping meaning

This article was first published by Chris McDermott on Medium, 14th February 2019

When running Maturity Mapping sessions with teams and in workshops I ask teams to map the practices they use. What I started to see appear on maps were activities that I didn’t recognise as practices, a number of times “Feedback Loops’ appeared. This didn’t, and still doesn’t, strike me as a practice.

I tried to work round this by providing a list of practices both as a starting point and as examples to use, this didn’t go well. I had clearly set tight boundaries on what I thought practice was. During the session very few new practices were added and the team didn’t engage. It semmed to stifle much of the conversation about how they worked together which defeated the purpose of Maturity Mapping. To his credit Marc didn’t even say I told you so afterwards, even though he had in no uncertain terms told me so 🙂

Social Practice Theory

The conversation needs enabling and not governing constraints. Guidance on what constitutes practice and not a set of practices. When discussing Maturity Maps with Jabe Bloom he (re)introduced me to Elizabeth Shove’s work around Social Practice Theory (SPT). While it resonated straight away it’s taken me some time to get comfortable articulating how it might integrate with maps.

Simply put, SPT suggests that practice is made of three elements:

  • Meaning: the motivational, emotional and aspirational. It’s why we should care.
  • Material: the infrastructure, tool, technology or process.
  • Competence: the skills and know how.

Let’s consider the example of cycling:

  • Meaning: could be any one or a combinationof transport, health, competition or contribution to the environment.
  • Material: a combination of the bike and the place(road, velodrome, mountain etc) in which the practice is performed.
  • Competence: ability to balance, timing when breaking, posture, personal fitness etc.

Take a moment to think about the following practice associated with software development:

  • TDD (Meaning: high quality code, good modular design, rapid regression testing. Material: programming language, the IDE, xUnit Framework, red-green-refactor. Competence: programming and design skill, test design).
  • Stand-up meeting (Meaning: planning, alignment, social cohesion. Material: walk the board, 3 questions, the space where you meet. Competence: knowing and sharing).
  • Version control (Meaning: safe storage and sharing of code, reverting to previous version etc, Material: git, your client. Competence: knowing what and when to commit, how to pull, merge etc)
  • Wardley Mapping (Meaning: situational awareness and strategy. Material: the map, the doctrine, gameplay, Realtime Board, paper & pen etc. Competence: how to recognise and document a value chain, understanding of evolution etc).
  • Maturity Mapping (Meaning: situational awareness, understanding competence, directed improvement, shared understanding. Material: Wardley Map, Cynefin, Realtime Board, stickies, pens etc. Competence: facilitation, knowledge of practice etc)

We could go on but hopefully you get the drift…

Mapping Meaning

What I’ve started to find interesting when producing maps with teams is not to delve into the named practice but to look instead at the meaning of the practice. It’s allows us to develop slightly more abstract maps which has the effect of making them more coherent. Another way to put it is to ask, what is the job this practice is doing for us? Some of you might recognise this as Jobs To Be Done (JTBD).

So what a might a map, whose entries are defined via the lens of meaning/JTBD, look like?

You can see here a consistency of granularity of practice. We don’t dive into the low level detail e.g Build Software could contain many sub practices (programming languages, design patterns etc) which you may then want to discuss and possibly map in a sub map. You’ll also notice that the three branches mentioned in the original post, and seen near the top of the map above, also encourage us to think about meaning but at a slightly more abstract level.

What’s next with SPT

Not only does SPT give us criteria to examine our suggested practice but it begins to open a number of questions about things like the evolution of practice, movement strategies, defining and recording practice, sharing practice, integrating new practice and why some practices are successfully adopted while other (equally effective) practices are not. We can also start to thinking about how practice is connected. Components on a Wardley Map are primarily connected via need but what if we connected practice by shared meaning, material or competence? There is quite a bit here so I’ll return to most of this at a later date.

Hopefully that’s given you something to chew on.


The Dynamics of Social Practice: Everyday Life and How it Changes. Shove et al

Realtime Board Wardley Map template by Ben Mosior