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Sunday, 09 August 2015 08:11

Best practice: scepticism and hubris

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Like many people who post on LinkedIn, I am deeply interested in the development of leadership and management disciplines - how we can continue to make them better. One way we can improve the way we work is to identify best practices and then apply them more widely. And this seems to be a commonly accepted approach. I want to express a bit of scepticism about this approach.

My scepticism stems not from the theoretical concept of best practice, but from two practical concerns:

  1. The basis for classifying something as best practice
  2. The domain of application of that best practice.

Let me explain some more.


The best practice conversation

We are all familiar with those 2 words often thrown around in conversations relating to leadership, management, organizations and professional disciplines:  “best practice". Professionals seem to like these words a lot. There are a couple of typical situations in which the phrase is used. During a review, to justify an approach, the: “why are you doing it that way” – “well it’s best practice” conversation. The other time is when consultants and professional service providers are trying to sell their services and they claim they use best practice. Well whoopee!

We should applaud anyone who knows the best way to do anything. If it really is the best way, then we should all be doing it.


Anecdote versus science

There are, unfortunately, problems with this thinking. Many of the proponents of best practice present it as some scientifically researched, unchallengeable, infallible wisdom. But most of these proponents are self-pronounced experts. Whilst they generally are trying to be helpful, the truth is that often so called best practice is nothing more than what they have found works well on the projects they have worked on. Nothing wrong with that. We can all learn from experience. But “what I’ve found works in the past” is not the same as proven best practice. That’s confusing anecdote with science.

Anecdotes can be very helpful – within limits. Your attitude to “this is my best anecdote” or “this is my best experience” is probably intrinsically different to a claim that “this is best practice”.

There are of course, honourable exceptions. Organizations, researchers and professionals who really are trying to find best practices and put them through some rigorous testing and research. These are to be praised. But much of what is labelled as best practice does not originate from one of these groups.


This works here, so it will work there ….

Is the answer then to do more and more research to find the best way of doing anything? That is an appealing answer. I applaud the efforts people make to improve methods, tools, bodies of knowledge, and approaches. I hope they continue to do this. But I remain I a little bit sceptical when the results of that work is to create yet another “best practice”.

Underlying the very words best practice is an assumption that there actually can be such a thing as best practice. Maybe you think - surely, there must be a best way of doing something and isn’t this best practice? Well, yes probably – but within limits.

The challenge comes from understanding whether a best practice identified in one situation is really applicable to another situation. Is situation X similarly like situation Y to mean what we learnt in X is applicable to Y?

My scepticism comes from my belief that situations are unique: goals, scale, culture, context, environment and so on are critical variables. This is especially true in situations involving those most unpredictable and varying of variables: people.

I’m not saying we can’t re-use tools, techniques and processes. Of course we can. There is sufficient similarity between many situations that common approaches can be used. If I did not believe this then disciplines such as project and change management, which I rely on, would evaporate. I mean that we should be cautious in thinking of anything labelled as best practice as truly universal best practice.


Hammers and nails

There is a well-known old phrase “give a man a hammer and he will see everything as a nail”, which is worth keeping in mind. Having worked across disciplines I have seen this being true so many times at work: strategists seeing everything as requiring a strategy, project managers thinking everything is a project, HR considering everything as a talent problem, facilitators trying to facilitate in every situation, and coaches trying to resolve ever issue with coaching.

Once armed with best practices, this habit of seeing everything from the perspective of our own hammers increases.


The end of discovery

This leads into my other worry I have with best practice. If something really is best, then it can’t be improved. I mean, if it could it was never best practice in the first place. This is what is known in the science as the end of discovery - the point at which we have discovered all that is knowable.

In the management and leadership domain, I doubt I am being very controversial to state we are a long way from the end of discovery. (If I am wrong and you do have the library of perfect approaches let us all know, you could save the world a whole lot of trouble).

Am I against things called best practice? No, not really. I  prefer inexperienced colleagues to start by adopting and learning from “best practice”, whatever the real truth of its status as best.

More generally, instead of thinking of best practice, let’s be honest enough to reflect that we know some good practice, and even some very good practices. But that each of these good practices has a domain in which it is applicable and the rest of the world in which it is not. For experienced teams I prefer people to consciously review the good practices available, select what is best for that specific situation, and ideally come back and improve on the practice once they have done their work.

I suggest the following:

  • Keep up the good work searching out for best practices, being aware of the high standard you are setting if you really claim something is best.
  • If you are offered a best practice thank the person offering it, but before applying it spend a couple of minutes reflecting on:
    • What’s the basis for this being called “best practice”?
    • Was it developed in situations sufficiently similar to those you now work in?
  • Keep yourself honest and up to date. Be aware of new good practices, and if applicable, use them. But try to avoid seeing everything from the viewpoint of your own hammer.
  • If you learn something wonderful, or even just helpful, share it so we can all try it out – but don’t automatically overstate the case by claiming it’s a new best practice. That's just hubris.

..... but of course there may be a better practice when it comes to adopting best practice. 

Read 4518 times Last modified on Sunday, 09 August 2015 08:18
Richard Newton

Richard Newton wears many hats. Included amongst these are his work as a consultant, author, blogger, change leader, company director, and program manager. His most well known project management book is The Project Manager: Mastering the Art of Delivery. He is also the author of the best-selling Dream It, Do It, Live It which applies project management principles to achieving personal dreams.

His articles and blogs can be followed at www.changinghats.com. Information about his company can be found at www.enixus.co.uk. His books are available at bookshops and online sellers worldwide.

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