Questions about Human Practices

Ever since I began to wonder about what my father was talking about when he spoke of why he was going to work, I have found myself asking about practices – the things we do over and over again. Over time, we forget how our practices began. They become habits, obligations, things we have to do. After a while, the inspirations, intentions, and commitments in which they were born are forgotten. Why do we have this meeting or that report? Where did this activity that we keep doing come from? Often, we suffer with the “mindless” repetitions of our activities. TGIF?

Practices allow us to accumulate value and bring us important possibilities Consider, for example, the cases of practices such as trade, commerce, medicine, science, writing, archiving, and, now, … blogging! When I was young, my father’s work (engineering), took him away from me, and I suffered with that. But he was happy with his work – he considered it a privilege – and, looking back, I realize he infected me with his appreciation for some of the possibilities of working. When I was older, I realized that he was doing things that mattered in the larger world, and I was proud of him.

When we speak of a practice we are pointing not merely to a collection of motions or activities, but to a world. The practice of medicine includes not only what doctors do, but also the institutions in which they are trained, work, paid, and their work is assessed, and many other industries and institutions (i.e., drugs and hospitals). All of these are potentially relevant when we ask questions like: Why are so many doctors today “burning out”? What does that mean, and how is it connected to the practice of medicine?

It will come as no surprise that for most of my adult life I have been concerned with what we do when we come together to do what we call “work”. These are the kinds of questions that have caught me over the years.

  • Why do we work?
  • What are we really doing “at work”?
  • How do we compose and orchestrate work?
  • How do we “manage” work?
  • What does “governance” means in corporations, governments, and non-governmental settings?
  • How are new practices built (and how do we support them with tools and systems)?
  • How are old habits broken to open the way for new practices?
  • What does it mean to lead a community of people who are trying to do things that matter to them in the world?

In this blog I will bring questions about human practices. The big questions will take us some time to get to: How do our practices come to be? How can we best understand, ‘diagnose’, and intervene in them? How can we bring new practices that enable people to have fuller roles in this world? How do we build ethical enterprises and richer social relations? How can we reduce the awesome wastes of lives, capacities, and resources that we see all around us as we ‘work’, particularly in the industrialized world.

I have for many years been interested in ways of thinking and acting that allow me and my clients to look beneath the world’s neatly ordered stories about why and how people do the things they do. We are curious, story-telling creatures of habit. Our stories – the extraordinary narratives we all have in our backgrounds – shape how we see, understand, and act in our worlds. It has taken me a long time to grasp that these stories are just as much a part of our habitual ways of being as are our preferences in food, music, and people.

I invite you to join me in an exploration of questions relating to the construction of ethical and effective human enterprise.

© Copyright 2006, Chauncey Bell and BABDI, LLC. All rights reserved worldwide.

7 thoughts on “Questions about Human Practices

  1. Robert Wilson

    Here is the one practice that just baffles me. We have massive software applications that run in these large industrial organizations. They are intended to make us to what we need to do in the right way and in the most productive way. By the way they are developed by some of the most highly educated people in the domain of “Information Technology”.

    The bewidering practice I’m referring to is the one where the people across the company are creating their own applications (primarily in Excel) to track the status of all the work that they are using the monolithic applications to do. I mean you can’t rightly find an application that people are using where they are not creating a corresponding excel artifact to help them understand where things are and what to do next. The fact that they are in the practice of relying on these excel things is one thing – I’m not so bewildered by this practice because people are helplessly in the need to know where they are at any given moment. The real bewidering thing to me is the lack of recognition by senior leadership (both IT and business) that this might be a real problem.

  2. Sorry for slow response, Bob. Busy weekend and then a flight to Ireland. Thank you for pointing to this anomaly. Several things occur to me.

    The monolithic applications you refer to are sometimes deeply connected to the success of the business – when they track the making and fulfilling of commitments that produce value for clients and the company itself. Good examples are systems like those that manage Federal Express or operations.

    On the other hand, more frequently, big, monolithic applications track and take care of commitments that are not so tightly related to the value that the company produces. In those cases, working out alternative ways to do things is a positive value to the company.

    Second, I know of not a single company that has a clear, coherent, well founded global language in which it speaks of commitment. That means that the monolithic applications, unless well tied to the concerns of customers as is the case with the two examples above, are more likely to embody and reify old ways of coordinating.

    My experience is that developing competence for building global systems of commitment at the top of the organization is quite hard to do. For example, witness the experience we had when we were working together on projects.

    Finally, the “local” spreadsheets are going to have been written in “local” languages. Those that construct them are likely to develop more ownership of their logic and operation. With the global applications, people often fall into the interpretation that proper interaction with the application, the right data, etc., is all that is needed for success. Of course, that is never true.

    What do you think?

  3. Robert Wilson

    I would like to see one of these big apps that actually works for the business and its people. In my world none of them seem to work and they drive a whole host of practices that support people what they think the right thing to do is. I would really like to see how FedEx develops and sustains their apps in support of their fundamental promise to customers. I recently shipped a package to my nephew via UPS and the shipper gave me a link that I was able to hit ( that showed the status of the package all the way to delivery. How bad we need the same type of functionality in the product development process so that we can always know where we are. Instead people fight to go find out where they and their things are and that takes away from the time they could be spending listening, designing and producing new ways to satisfy customers.

  4. (Slow again … two more round trips to Ireland … is this any way to treat this body?)

    Gorgeous comment, Bob. Shall we attempt to do something about it?

    I recently promised to take a lot of waste out of a large construction project. It was only after several meetings and conversations that I realized that the guy to whom I had made the promise was not interacting with my promise because he did not believe it was possible. And, someone who makes impossible promises is a dreamer, or worse. So, in this case, I backed up and made a much smaller promise. When I fulfill that, I’ll have room to make a bigger one, and then a bigger one, and so on.

    It has been several years since you and I collaborated on making offers to people in your engineering departments. At the time, we had other people around us complicating the conversations. Shall we discuss the possibility of constructing an offer to one of the engineering groups to do something in the direction you are suggesting? I’m confident that we could guide a team to the design of a way of doing what you ask for. Have I shared the paper I wrote about the construction of the SABRE system? It shows some of the critical dimensions. Nevertheless, we would probably find we wanted to start with small promises again, as these questions are always articulated and understood in local languages.

    The challenge is going to be building the language in which a series of offers can make sense to a traditional engineering team stuck with the methods that produce the mess that you point to, and, at the same time, staying on the line you propose in your last comment.

    What say you?

  5. Robert Wilson

    We should definitely discuss the opportunity. There was a lot of noise around our last conversation here. Travel to the midwest would certainly be easier than travel to Dublin. Beer not as good though I would guess. Your help is needed more here at home though.

  6. Robert Wilson

    Chauncey: I am in a meeting right now reviewing the product that Lombardi Software offers. Have you seen it? There is a man here named, Phil Gilbert, that mentioned working with Action some years ago. He recognized your name. This software is quite interesting. Hope you are doing well.

  7. Two new studies show why some people are more attractive for members of the opposite sex than others.

    The University of Florida, Florida State University found that physically attractive people almost instantly attract the attention of the interlocutor, sobesednitsy with them, literally, it is difficult to make eye. This conclusion was reached by a series of psychological experiments, which were determined by the people who believe in sending the first seconds after the acquaintance. Here, a curious feature: single, unmarried experimental preferred to look at the guys, beauty opposite sex, and family, people most often by representatives of their sex.

    The authors believe that this feature developed a behavior as a result of the evolution: a man trying to find a decent pair to acquire offspring. If this is resolved, he wondered potential rivals. Detailed information about this magazine will be published Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

    In turn, a joint study of the Rockefeller University, Rockefeller University and Duke University, Duke University in North Carolina revealed that women are perceived differently by men smell. During experiments studied the perception of women one of the ingredients of male pheromone-androstenona smell, which is contained in urine or sweat.

    The results were startling: women are part of this repugnant odor, and the other part is very attractive, resembling the smell of vanilla, and the third group have not felt any smell. The authors argue that the reason is that the differences in the receptor responsible for the olfactory system, from different people are different.

    It has long been proven that mammals (including human) odor is one way of attracting the attention of representatives of the opposite sex. A detailed article about the journal Nature will publish.

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