Best Practices Rarely Are

Best practices are so last year!  Perennially.  By the time a practice gets labelled as best by some authority, there’s an innovator somewhere finding a better way. Or, more likely, a better way for their situation.

Best practices are what you use when you aren’t sure and want to be safe.  When CYA is more important than OMG.  As in, OMG this is awesome!  Yes, best practices can be lower-risk practices.  But “best”?  Don’t believe the hype.

Have I got your attention? 

It’s seductive, this belief in best practices.  This culture of over-solutionism.  The belief that there’s an “easy button” of great business practice, and all we have to do is copy what that guy with all the letters after his name who wrote that article does.  After all, if practices are called “best”, they must be best. Right?  All the time and always best.  Because, if that’s not true, then how could they be best?

Pause. Let’s get real.  Do you really believe that best practices are always best?  I don’t.  You have to admit that I’m making some sense here.  Let’s dig into this a little more.

What IS a best practice anyway?

It’s a practice—or, often, set of processes—that have shown to be useful in at least a few environments.  These environments have been stable and reliable enough to allow these practices to be documented and reproduced.  And then written about by someone who is deemed to be an expert.

This doesn’t mean I’m saying you should never use best practices. 

Oh no, not at all!  Sometimes, the situation warrants a best practice. Your team’s energy should focus on the things that matter most for the business’ growth and livelihood.  Your team’s attention energy is an exhaustible resource. Even though there is a huge upside to customizing practices for the specific needs of the organization, there are cases when defaulting to a best practice is a more efficient use of your team’s attention.  The trick is knowing the difference.

When are so-called best practices truly best? 

Things that are predictable, stable, with minimal interdependencies, and a high need for consistency.  Think of payroll processing.  Innovating and iterating rapidly on that process isn’t too smart.  Doing payroll consistently without errors is far more important.

Now think about work at your business.  How many things can you think of that are predictable, stable, with minimal interdependencies, and a high need for consistency?  Not many, huh?  Me neither.

[pullquote align=”normal” cite=”James Bach”]There are no best practices. By this I mean there is no practice that is better than all other possible practices, regardless of the context. In other words, no matter what the practice and how valuable it may be in one context, I can destroy it by altering things about the situation surrounding the practice.[/pullquote]

There are logical implications of best practices being best-only-sometimes.  Best-only-sometimes means there are times when another practice is better.  Best-only-sometimes also means we can’t rule out the possibility that a practice—no matter what we call it—may in fact be worst for that situation.  Worst, not best.

[pullquote align=”normal” cite=”David Walker”]Genius comes from discovering what happens in the moment, not from what worked last week.[/pullquote]

Knowing when best-only-sometimes actually means not-so-great-in-this-case.

How you go about solving a problem depends on the nature of the problem. David Snowden created a framework he calls Cynefin, which maps out different sorts of problems. This is relevant because he noticed that best practices are most useful when the cause & effect are known, repeatable, and predictable.  He calls this the simple (or obvious) domain.

Here’s the four domains with descriptions and ideal response patterns for each.

Simple Problems are well understood and solutions are evident.  Minimal expertise required. Sense
Best Practices
Complicated You have a general idea of the known unknowns.  Expertise needed to resolve. Sense
Good Practices
Complex There are unknown unknowns. Experimentation required. Probe
Emergent Solutions
Chaos Things have gone off the rails and the immediate priority is containment. Act


You see where best practices are in the chart?  Yep.  Use only for simple, well-understood problems.  Good practices—not best— come into play when things get complicated.  We run into big trouble when we treat the complex domain as if it were simple.  Or, perhaps worse, we fail to notice changes in what was once the simple domain.  We keep plugging away with our best practices until, suddenly, nothing works as it should anymore.  We’re plunged into chaos.

When dealing with the business of people, simple conditions are rare.

Complicated conditions are a little more common. But still, for us to believe we know all the unknowns is hubris.  Yet we behave as if those are the two most common scenarios. That is not so. Organizations are complex.  People are complex.  The problem with this over-simplification is the eventual emergence of ‘unexpected consequences’.

What is it about best practices that makes them so compelling?

There is great temptation to shrink a complex situation into a simpler framework because it gives us a sense of control, and that is comforting.  It’s a relief to believe that all critical variables are knowable.  That other people have solved this very problem.  All we have to do is plug and play.

Big consulting firms are some of the biggest proponents of best practices.  True story.  Some of you may be thinking gee, if obviously successful Fortune 100 Corp regularly spends big $$$$’s to High Dollar Consulting Firm to implement best practices, then social proof tells us that they are totally worth it.  They must know something, right?

Here’s the deal.  It’s totally worth it to the consulting firm because a best practice is easily reproducible from client to client.  The company has to conform to the model, not the model to the company.  Best practices also insulate the firm from harm because these practices are vetted and approved, so if stuff does hit-the-fan, well, we-at-high-dollar-consulting-firm are blameless because we’re just doing things the proven way.  At least, reproducible at lower effort than producing customized solutions. A best practice also solves the unspoken wish of the industry leaders who engage these consultants—the unspoken wish to remove uncertainty.  Best practices are a siren song and consulting firms know just how to sing that song best.

What does this all mean for you and your business’ well-being? 

When you are growing, you will find yourself needing to establish more standardized practices.  There’s a strong temptation to just apply what’s labelled “best”.  It may very well be the way to go, or, at least, a great place to start.  More likely, you have smart people on staff with the experience and creativity to build practices that are better-than-“best”.  Give them the charter to create greatness.  Greatness is better-than-“best”ness.

One practice I can get behind is being thoughtful about practices. 

In particular, it’s useful to develop a habit of casting a critical eye on any push to adopt a best practice.  Be aware that whomever is proposing a best practice has an agenda and that agenda may or may not be in sync with your own agenda.  Noticing that, I think, is a pretty good practice.

How can you tell when to adopt a “best” practice and when to customize? 

There’s this lego exercise that demonstrates the different types of environments.  This experiential exercise can help you recognize the domain of your issue-at-hand. Besides, who’s going to argue about a gratuitous opportunity to play legos?  Don’t answer that.

Look. You won’t always get it right.  Such is life. We humans do tend to filter our reality for what we think we already know, so it’s hard to diagnose things right every time.  Human nature being what it is, you’ll feel pressures to implement best practices more frequently than is truly ideal.  It’s gonna happen.

Despite the challenges, you and the smart people you work with CAN fight the power.  Here’s some tips to avoid getting mindlessly suckered into best practice solutionism.

1)      Is this really a simple domain?  Are problems well understood?  Conditions stable?
2)      To be sure, what variables and assumptions make the practice work well?
3)      What variables might make the practice less optimal for your situation?
4)      How does this square with your issue-at-hand?
5)      What changes are possible to your issue-at-hand that could change feasibility?
6)      Build a prompt to check in on how the practice is working. Has anything changed?
7)      Do all this out loud or in writing and vet your thinking with a devil’s advocate friend.
8)      Avoid using the term “best practice” because it is, for the most part, nonsensical.*

* Unless you are advocating for a practice with someone who is a best practice solutionist who has the power to prevent you from implementing that practice.  Then it totally makes sense to call it “best”.  But you didn’t hear that from me.

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