The Practice Spotting Tool for Meaning Makers

September 7, 2020

Imagine illustrating a timeline of your own life and work experience. You might start with a minute, then an hour, a day, a week, a month, a year, and so on. Consider the activities that happen on that timeline—across moments in various timeframes.

With whom did you interact and why? What did you need to accomplish? What helped you or stopped you from achieving that accomplishment. At certain points, you’ll need to consider both time and place to be able to reflect on the happenings on that timeline and the key moments for you and others.

Now, imagine breaking those moments into different timespans and consider where you could use these as units of analysis—each unit making up part of a story. What if you could have a tool that let you look more broadly and deeply into what was happening in the interactions and relationships between the people, time, and places across different moments in varied environments?

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Consider the gaps in those moments. You need to be able to determine what is happening in the gaps between those moments, as well as the interactions and relationships between people within those gaps.

Consider the microinteractions and behaviors in the moments between people and the impact they have on you and the people around you. These microinteractions and behaviors include words and actions—examples include taking time to listen, say thank you, or offer the courtesy of allowing another person to go first. These microinteractions and behaviors can also be negative—for example, sighing repeatedly around the people you work and live with.

In this article, we’ll introduce our Practice Spotting Tool™ and describe how you can use it to observe work cultures. It lets people use project stories at work, take responsibility for identifying meaningful practices, look for opportunities to actively connect and contextualize their work, and insert meaning into their work.

This Practice Spotting Tool helps you look at moments and the gaps between those moments. We’ve intentionally created it as a catalyst for observing and reflecting on moments and inspiring curiosity in individuals, teams, and organizations. Our goal is to stimulate reflective practices by recording such practices, writing exercises for them, and measuring their outcomes to inform healthier tactical and strategic directions.

Practice spotting uses multiple lenses to help people advance their potential and widen their perspectives, by helping them see, be aware, feel, sense, hear, and consider biases in their own and others interactions and in the relationships between people. As people collaborate together, these lenses might focus, for example, on motivations, power, body language, emotions, energies, attitudes, language, or tone.

As you delve further into understanding moments across practices, habits, and cultures, you’ll begin to gain an explicit understanding of your own lenses. This is critical in enabling deeper and more reflective conversations.

To foster reflection and spot what is often implicit or hidden in our work cultures, we need to develop work practices, habits, and cultures that make our implicit or hidden practices visible. Our Practice Spotting Tool lets us observe different work environments.

Employing Professional-Development Lenses

The three-dimensional challenge describes how people develop professionally, as follows:

  1. Cognitive development lets you accumulate knowledge about business and management.
  2. Behavioral development helps you to gain confidence in doing things differently.
  3. Affective development enables you to become better at relating to others and develop a clear sense of who they are.

These practice-spotting lenses can help you understand different dimensions of your work and, more explicitly, sense, spot, and understand the practices around the interactions and relationships between people. Encourage organizations to take enough time for reflection and pursue ideas or practices that pique their curiosity, including the following:

  1. Attitude + mindset—open or closed
  2. Perspectives + opportunities—past, present, and future
  3. Communication + intent—individual and team outcomes
  4. Impact + time—success based on commitment

Adopting Reflective Practices

A huge challenge in the 21st century is being able to focus on what is happening in the environments and communities in which we work and live.

Distractions can shift our focus away from getting on with our project tasks that we need to complete to achieve meaningful outcomes. They also create environments and cultures in which we might fall prey to transactional practices that leave us little room to pause, take stock, and reflect on not only the work we’re doing together but also how we’re interacting and relating with each other in doing that work.

People need time and space for reflection to discover practices that help them overcome distractions and interruptions—for example, from technologies such as mobile devices, new work environments, remote work, 24-hour news cycles, social media, and unnecessary meetings that eat into the time we need for delivering on our work promises to ourselves and the colleagues who rely on us.

We start with a physical space that is different from that in which we conduct our day-to-day transactional work—a place in which we want explicit conversations and practices to happen. We need to create a space in which people can practice together safely. We invite people to be present in that space, join the conversation, share stories, and do some practice spotting together. We encourage people to be aware that they are part of a learning culture.

Learning About Cultures

A person’s environment comprehends both that which is within that individual and outside that individual. Our environment includes the place in which we work, the people with whom we work, the culture of our workplace, and even our colleagues’ and stakeholders’ emotions. All of these factors can help or hinder our ability to make a meaningful impact.

At work, we have observed people

  • not sharing stories on a daily basis
  • not explicitly recording the implicit practices from their stories
  • not practicing individually or on teams
  • pursuing professional and personal development as a matter of luck, not rigor

Practice spotting helps us gain clarity on what is happening within the environments we experience. These environments comprise four elements, as follows:

  1. Time—What point in time are we observing?
  2. People—Who was present at that time? For what stories were people present or not present.
  3. Place—In what place did these stories happen?
  4. Practices—What stories have you observed and recorded on practice cards? These practices are multidimensional and multilayered.

In practice spotting, people often make the mistake of over-thinking things: Is this the right practice to spot? Is this the right practice to adopt? There is no one right answer to these questions because the answers differ depending on the people, time, and place. So we should always ground our practices in people, times, and places.

By keeping up this practice, you can discover how many elements and layers you can see, what language people use—including body language—and how people behave in various environments. The practices we use differ in different environments. Selecting and, if necessary, adapting the right practice is critical.

Using Our Practice Spotting Tool

Our Practice Spotting Tool is an observation and sensemaking tool that helps you to deconstruct and decompose people’s behaviors, depending on what is happening to people, in what time and place. Practice spotting can help you understand the larger narrative and know where you fit into it. To know where you can insert meaning into different environments. When we do practice spotting, we want to discover practices that are implicit in nature and make them explicit by calling them out and recording them on practice cards.

Barriers to more deeply understanding people include the following:

  • incorrectly making assumptions about what other people need, who they are, what they do, or what types of people they are
  • gaps in relationships during which people do not speak to each other
  • deadlines that lead to having little time or attention for reflecting on stories and the relationships and practices within those stories
  • lacking a space for connecting the data that may already exist in different parts of an organization to gain a clearer understanding of needs
  • lacking the time to set priorities, see the path ahead, and plan your work because people are constantly focusing on tasks that meet short-term goals and working hard to implement them quickly

With our questions in hand to help facilitate a meaningful conversation, we want to gain a deeper understanding of the people from whom we’re learning and begin collecting stories.

Explicit, or Seen, Practices

You’ll derive your practices through practice spotting and make them explicit by recording them on a practice card. You’ll adopt these explicit practices and engage in continuous learning with your colleagues at work.

Implicit, or Unseen, Practices

These practices are present in our day-to-day work and interactions with people. Examples include resilience, motivation, curiosity, authenticity, listening, care, prioritization, confronting difficulties, storytelling, respect, problem solving, trust, self-awareness, taking responsibility, dealing with conflict, fear, tolerating ambiguity, navigating complexity, analyzing and solving problems, diplomacy, and having confidence.

We call these implicit practices because, often, we don’t call out or record such practices and might not practice them on our own or with others.

Practice spotting is a way of acquiring knowledge about what is under the surface—what is really happening from both positive and negative perspectives. When using practice spotting within your work environment, it is important to understand the following:

  • There is no right or wrong way of doing things.
  • No static environment exists because change is fluid and flows across people, time. and place.
  • There is no formula because we see varied practices that have different dimensions, in different environments.
  • There is always something to see across the layers. Practice spotting can feel like peeling a big onion, one layer at a time.
  • Usually, implicit practices lie under the surface and are hidden.
  • Discovering a practice requires that you perceive its multiple parts, including yourself and the environment in which you work.
  • Practice spotting can give you the opportunity to thrive.

Units of Analysis

Practice spotting requires a unit of analysis. We refer to the primary unit of analysis as a project story. Other units of analysis include the following:

  • stories at work—We often start here.
  • scenarios—These are the situations that people are currently facing.
  • conversations—You can use any conversation to get started doing practice spotting.
  • people—These are the people with whom you’re interacting.
  • learning events—These are the teachable moments you’re experiencing.
  • articles and books—Such resources give you the opportunity to learn from others’ experiences.

Each unit of analysis usually has within it certain characteristics that help you observe, unpack, and understand what’s happening within and around you. In practice spotting, you’ll use these units of analysis in observing and clarifying the conversations, language, and emotions that occur between people. Ask these questions:

  • What is explicitly happening or not happening between people?
  • What is implicitly happening or not happening between people?

Practice spotting lets us catalog and extract these elements so we can convert them into useful data that helps us to identify and extract a practice that then becomes a practice card. For example, a person might believe he already understands other people. This often leads to making false assumptions about their needs, who they are, what they do, and what types of people they are—ultimately, leading to making incorrect choices.

Creating Meaningful Outcomes

In understanding organizations, it is common to focus on the performance of people in specific roles—what they do in transacting their work and the outputs or deliverables they create. Organizations often use key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure specific types of productivity. Some of the language they use to describe performance comes from the industrial age and leans toward dehumanizing people in the work they do.

This can also create nasty situations in which people game their numbers as they compete with others within their organization, encourages unhealthy cultures, and in some cases, obviates the merits of a performance-based system.

While we choose not to focus on performance, we cannot ignore it. Instead, we choose to focus on potential by looking at self-efficacy, meaningful work, and emotional intelligence. Here are some example criteria from our Make Meaningful Work Measurement Tool that you can consider when doing practice spotting: (Thanks to Zach Mecurio.)


  • I can always manage to solve difficult problems if I try hard enough.
  • If someone opposes me, I can find some means of getting what I need.

Meaningful work:

  • I have found a meaningful career.
  • I view my work as contributing to my personal growth.

Emotional intelligence:

  • Most of the time, I have a good sense of why I feel certain feelings.
  • I have a good understanding of my own emotions,

Using Practice Spotting to Widen and Deepen Your Perspectives

We use practice spotting to see ourselves and others clearly; to shape an organization’s practices, habits, and culture; and to build, foster, confront, navigate, enable, and sustain practices to reduce sleepwalking and increase sparkle.

The Make Meaningful Work Primer

The Make Meaningful Work Primer comprises the following five maxims, each of which has two key practices, which together provide a structure for shaping work cultures:

  1. Enable active listening to build awareness.
  2. Spark curiosity to solve ambiguous problems.
  3. Foster quality relationships to enable contextual adaptability.
  4. Promote diversity to navigate complexity.
  5. Build confidence to make meaningful decisions.

Connect two of the following practices to each of the five maxims to determine what you need for the contexts you face and to promote contextual adaptability.

Build and foster:

  • awareness
  • contextual adaptability
  • resilience
  • safety, trust, and respect
  • creativity
  • courage
  • determination
  • confidence
  • self-initiated leadership
  • diversity
  • diplomacy
  • responsibility

Confront and navigate:

  • ambiguity
  • complexity
  • conflict

Enable and sustain:

  • curiosity
  • active listening
  • solving problems
  • approachability
  • collaboration
  • relationships
  • storytelling
  • better decisions

As a practice spotter and meaning maker, your role is to listen and foster opportunities to dive deep as stories emerge.

Becoming a Meaning Maker

Understanding cultures implies being aware and playing an active role in influencing the cultures with which we interact on a routine basis. The role of being a meaning maker is an equally critical role as actually doing the work of making a product or service for an organization.

When you’re seeking to understand people, consider the following:

  • Move beyond the questions. Allow opportunities to move beyond the key questions and explore conversations that could lead to your learning what you might not know about people. This may lead to some good insights.
  • Have good conversations. Remember, really getting to know people takes time. Sometimes our own language can get in the way of gaining access to good stories.
  • Be present. Remember to be present, interested. and aware. During conversations, give people your undivided attention. This is common courtesy, and it also helps people to feel more at ease with you.
  • Allow enough time. If you don’t cram your conversations with too many questions—for example, during research sessions that last an hour and a half to two hours—you’ll have enough time to uncover stories. Neither you nor research participants should feel pressured to complete all of the questions you might have planned. Instead, allow stories to emerge naturally.
  • Meet people’s real needs. Listen for words in their stories that speak to their real needs. Consider times when you were let down by someone who failed to fulfill your real needs. Try to let go of your domain knowledge and avoid giving participants clues through the terms you use.

In Conclusion

Move beyond focusing only on the transactional nature of your work—the delivery of outputs from your process. Move toward producing meaningful outcomes by using practices that positively impact on culture. As we take responsibility for our own practices, we should all play an even more explicit role by actualizing our values and driving the practices and behavioral outcomes of a caring culture.

Spend an hour each day examining your project’s potential to achieve significance through practice spotting and by following these essential practices:

  • Be caring, compassionate, and flexible.
  • Connect the dots.
  • Avoid falling into the trap of thinking in absolutes.
  • Be a curious, generous, life-long learner.
  • Evolve your perspectives—both locally and globally—to enhance diversity and think beyond the status quo.
  • Welcome all disciplines in creating a broader community of aspiration.

All of these practices can effectively rehumanize organizations, enabling them to deliver meaningful, caring outcomes that your organization can measure and have deeper, sustained impact over time. 

Principal Design Researcher at Apogee Asia Ltd.

Hong Kong

Daniel SzucOriginally from Australia, Dan has been based in Hong Kong for over 20 years. He is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. Dan has been involved in the field of User Experience for more than 20 years. He has lectured on user-centered design globally and is the co-author of two books: Global UX, with Whitney Quesenbery, and Usability Kit, with Gerry Gaffney. He is a founding member and Past President of the UPA China Hong Kong Branch and was a co-founder of the UPA China User Friendly conferences. Dan holds a BS in Information Management from Melbourne University Australia.  Read More

Co-founder and Principal Design Researcher at Apogee Asia Ltd.

Hong Kong

Josephine WongJo is a co-founder of both Make Meaningful Work and UX Hong Kong. She grew up in the multicultural city Hong Kong, with her Chinese-Burmese father and Chinese-Indonesian mother. Fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, Jo collaborates with global teams, conducting design research and usability testing. She is passionate about the environment, political and economic systems; and discovering how we can live healthier, happier lives without adversely impacting less fortunate people. She is a member of the Usability Professionals’ Association (UPA) Hong Kong Chapter. Jo attended Melbourne University, completing a Bachelor of Social Science Information Management.  Read More

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