The Power of Patterns and Practices



When you name something it’s powerful.  You have a way to reference it and share it with others.  Patterns are named problem and solution pairs.  They are a simple way to build and share a catalog of knowledge.  You can use patterns to efficiently share strategies or principles.  One good name is worth a 1000 words.  Practices are methods or techniques.   They are “how” you do something.   By leveraging patterns and practices, you can improve your ability to get results.  Basically, it’s a way to build a mental toolbox of insight and action to draw from.

You can think of a principle as a fundamental law or truth.  They can explain how things work or what to expect, such as the law of gravity.   You can also think of principles as internal motivation to do things (i.e. a matter of principle) vs. external rules that compel you and are enforced by threat or punishment.  You can also think in terms of guiding principles.  Guiding principles are strategies or guidelines or rules of thumb that guide your thinking or doing.   You can think of principles as strategies and rules as tactics.   Rather than have a rule or tactic for every situation, you can leverage guiding principles to help you find a solution or response.

The power of principles includes:

  • Explaining how things work.
  • Explaining what to expect.
  • Naming and sharing fundamental laws or truths.
  • Naming and sharing guidelines and rules of thumb.

You can think of a pattern as a proposed model or a recurring event.  Patterns are all around us.   You can see patterns in nature, in people, and in the shapes of buildings.   You may be familiar with design patterns, behavior patterns, patterns of events, spending patterns, or thought patterns.   You can also think of patterns as a proposed model.  If you’re a dress maker, you might use design patterns as a template to start from.  In software, patterns have been especially effective for documenting and sharing collective knowledge in the field.   Each pattern is a problem and solution pair.  The chunk of advice is structured and includes key information such as the context so you know when to use it or where it applies.  Because patterns are rooted in practice, they are discovered versus created, and as general rule of thumb, it’s not a pattern unless you can point to three examples where the pattern is used in practice.

The power of patterns includes:

  • Creating a shared vocabulary.
  • Naming and sharing solutions to common problems.
  • Sharing principles efficiently.
  • Documenting knowledge in a field.

You can think of practices as methods or techniques.  In other words, it’s a way to do something.  You’ve probably heard the term “best practices.”  While “best” is subjective, the idea is to share the most effective techniques.  On the patterns & practices team, we adopted the term, “proven practices” since some customers didn’t like the term “best practices.”  In our case, proven simply meant we tested the practices we shared for specific scenarios.  At the end of the day, our goal is to find and share practices for customer success.

The power of practices includes:

  • Creating a catalog of techniques in a given domain.
  • Naming and sharing methods or techniques.
  • Sharing expertise more effectively.

Examples of Principles, Patterns, and Practices
The following table shows some examples of principles, patterns, and practices:

Category Examples

Stephen Covey is also a good example in action.  He’s created a shared vocabulary by sharing a set of principles, patterns, and practices in the form of habits: habit 1 – be proactive, habit 2 – begin with the end in mind, habit 3 – put first things first, habit 4 – think win-win, habit 5 – seek first to understand and then to be understood, habit 6 – synergize, habit 7 – sharpen the saw, habit 8 – Find your voice, help others find theirs.

Photo by Bludgeoner86.


  1. I always embrace the importance of principles. However, I see there are many people who overvalue them and damage creativity. Especially in some universities and companies, making processes so formal, individuals lost their thinking abilities.So, yes to patterns in some degree but no to strict rules. (except it is good to create some patterns on your own and pursue them)

  2. Hi JD,

    You did a great job at showing the differences between principles, patterns and practices. I think we each have to find a method or system that works for us.

    I agree with Enes that strict rules end up causing damage in terms of creativity. Thinking outside of the box is something that many people have no idea how to do and therefore they keep trying to do the same thing over and over again with no success.

  3. JD
    Your power of patterns and practices dot lists are just exactly the missing pieces in so many marriages – I am going to try and print this off – it is so startling to see it this way…

    I disagree about the creativity concern – when you know the notes, scales, chords, and classic rhythms and forms of any musical program you can then compose….gifted children understand the patterns and practices and they are not hindered by conventions – some amazing creativity.

    I was watching a fellow on the British TV who was a mixing artist DJ…being in a reality show to compose a composition for PROM performances in London. He had been taught nothing about music…so he was trying to form the composition with feelings and dance…I wish I could have seen the end of the show…it was fairly amazing- plus all the creative amazing pieces of work performed by the composers and musicians attempting to help him – put the notes and instruments to his movement and feelings.

    Thank you JD – nice job

  4. I think the most important principle is the mastery of the self. We are our greatest obstacle that prevents us from achieving our goals. 🙂

  5. @ Enes

    That’s a good distinction. I like how Covey put it, “don’t break yourself against the laws.”

    @ Nadia

    Thank you. I like to think in terms of a living collection of patterns and practices.

    Interestingly, there are collections of patterns and practices for creative thinking.

    @ Patricia

    Thank you. I like your example of using patterns and practices to move up the stack. By knowing how things work, you can mash up and compose higher level strategies much simpler. It’s like how math symbols or short hand for the mind.

    @ Walter

    I agree. I regularly have to remind myself to get out of my way 🙂

  6. Hi JD – You described that really well. Now I just need to come up with my own set of patterns, principles, or practices and write a book about it. Thank you.

  7. Patterns are powerful thing indeed. In consulting too. There are recurrent gigs that can be fleshed out into service packages – easy to to sell/buy, easy to deliver, expected outcomes too.

    Patterns rules! 😉

  8. Nice summary. One of the additional benefits of patterns which is frequently overlooked is that a well written pattern will also describe the tradeoffs associated with using the pattern. It is these tradeoffs that allow you as an architect to defend your decision for either using the pattern or not using the pattern – and obviously defend your solution more rigourously.

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