Formal Statement of an Idea

There is this little place in Baltimore called The Red Room. I played a few shows there when I was active in the “Philly/Baltimore/DC” improv scene. I got to know a lot of people through the venue and bookstore and got to witness amazing music (including Jaap Blonk).

One of the things I love about this place (beside the longevity) is how it became a cultural center for like-minded people - artists and audience alike. It instilled in me one of my biggest dreams: to have a place like this where I can run weekly improv sessions and create a community of like-minded people.

It started to make some sense to me that I could find a forum for doing something similar in SRE. Not only was my instinct to create this sort of session something that jived with how musicians do teamwork, it also blended together the things we use to support our own sources of resilience.

My dream comes from a love of coming together through improvisation, by trying something new and experiencing discovery together. My research in and around Resilience Engineering led to formalizing it as a practice. It has become a dimension to SRE work that I will always try to maintain. The reason I’m documenting it on this site is to share the benfits with others in their journey to be expert teams.

Note the word Practice

I have done a lot more research on this subject since writing this over two years ago. The language is aging well, but it might need some annotation (a site lexicon wouldn’t be a bad idea either).

For instance, Theory of Practice here is like sophia: the learned skill of performing a role. Declarative knowledge that can be learned through observation and study, connected strongly to intellectual activity.

By contrast, Practice of Practice finds its germination in non-intellectual activity. Mindfulness. Instincts. Intuitions. Insights. It lies closer to phronesis: practical knowledge that is more like navigating complexity than following procedures. Learned through experience.

Deliberate Practice contains both of these. It takes deliberate practice to become skillful through theories of the technique, it takes deliberate practice to work in concert with a group of humans. Put another way, a group of experts is not automatically an expert team. So both styles of Practice are necessary for good collaboration, communication, and coordination.

Practice of Practice Charter

To build group intuition through a discipline of iterative socio-technical coordination and collaboration.

These words have a heritage in music.

In any type of activity, especially where expertise is seen, there are two forms of practice:

  1. The skill we obtain, that of our craft. The Practice Room. The Laboratory. The Gym. QA. Theory of Practice.
  2. The experience we absorb when we practice our craft. Real life. Improvisation. Production. Incidents. Practice of Practice.

Those final two terms - Theory of Practice and Practice of Practice - are lifted from Derek Bailey’s writing in Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music. He refers eponymously to musicologist Ella Zonis as she describes in Classical Persian Music how the performances do not match theoretical descriptions of how to perform.

Bailey says this is what the book is mainly about: “wherein the dictates of traditional procedures [theory of practice] are integrated with … immediate mood and emotional needs [practice of practice]”.

In other words, it is the emergent blend of craft with intuition. Rote learning with field action.

It is where our entire team deals with surprises at the edges of system boundaries. The most famous example of this is the Chaos Engineering Game Day. Another type I have participated in and led is the Wheel of Misfortune. There are others, like a 20 minute timeboxed data collection exercise of an incident flow in a chat channel.

I am starting up a block of time on Thursdays for these types of sessions and calling it Practice of Practice Gamelan after the Indonesian collection of diverse musical instruments. It also looks like it says Game.

Because these sessions should be fun. They should feel like a small band or a jazz ensemble getting together to play and learning how to improvise as a group. They are informal, not stressful, and the ultimate goal is that we learn how to collaborate together and gain common grounding.

So these words also keep the spirit of music with them.

  • Matt Davis, May 2021