Making sense of Best Practices

by | Dec 28, 2008


A Best Practice is a collection of tools/techniques/approaches/methods that deliver desired results effectively and efficiently when applied in a prescribed order. “Best” in the term “Best Practice” implies that there is no further room for improvement, ever!

There seems to be an implied sense of finality, why use anything less than the best? There also seems to be an implied sense of universality, wherein applying Best Practices under all circumstances will yield desired results most effectively and efficiently.

These Best Practices have come from well-minded people who have shared their successes at solving problems in a given domain. People have either intuitively found certain practices superior and best suited to solve some problems, or they have iterated over and tried multiple solution paths to solve a problem repeatedly and optimized their approach until Best Practices for their context have emerged. This is not to say that a Best Practice exists for all problems.

In HBR’s Nov 2007 Article: Leadership Framework for Decision Making, the authors assert that Simple Contexts are the domain of Best Practices.  As per the article, the characteristics of a Simple context;

Simple contexts are characterized by stability and clear cause-and-effect relationships that are easily discernible by everyone. Often, the
right answer is self-evident and undisputed. In this realm of “known knowns,” decisions are unquestioned because all parties share an
understanding. Areas that are little subject to change, such as problems with order processing and fulfillment, usually belong here.

Best practices are suited only within a simple context. Take, for example, the case of stolen/lost credit cards. The banking and credit card industry has faced this problem repeatedly. The solution to this problem for both the credit card holder and the credit card company has been codified into best practices. This has been possible through simplification of the context through technical improvements in supporting infrastructure and collaboration between various credit agencies to simplify their domain. And not the other way around.

Best Practices have not enabled simplification of the context; because of simplifications in the context, Best Practices have emerged/formulated.  Instead of seeking Best Practice solutions for one’s operational context, I believe one should focus on simplifying the context towards achieving effective and efficient means (practices).

The solutions all are simple…after you have arrived at them. But they’re simple only when you know already what they are.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – Robert M. Pirsig

My take on why best practices are believed to be so great is that they carry a sense of assurance to provide consistently the most effective and efficient results. The desirability for these benefits triggers the transfer of Best Practices from one organization to another. This transfer happens via cross-pollinating agents, most likely to be consultants.

Richard Dawkins, 1976 in his book “The Selfish Gene” coined the term “meme” as an analogy to the concept of gene. A meme is any unit of cultural information, such as a practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another. Examples include thoughts, ideas, theories, practices, habits.

Within today’s corporate culture, the notion of Best Practice is a meme.

Richard Dawkins:

“If a meme can get itself successfully copied, it will”.

The Best Practices meme has a strong pull from receivers (demand); after all, who doesn’t want the best? I would argue that there is a much stronger push from the suppliers (consultants) to sell Best Practice solutions in order to satisfy the receiver’s need.

Richard Dawkins:

“Effective memes will be those that cause high fidelity, long lasting memory,” and not necessarily the ones that are “important or useful.”

Best Practices meme have high fidelity between receivers and suppliers when simpler.

Memes do not replicate exactly as the original when they get complex. For it to be memorable, it hinges on simplified core elements that stick in people’s minds, easy to be mimicked for further replication.

Either that or in the melee of buying & selling services, quick fixes to long-standing problems, and trivialization of complex contexts into simpler ones, unwittingly or purposely, people have creatively oversold Best Practice solutions.

In this process, practices that have no demonstrable track record for betterment have been tagged to be “the best,” and effective practices are stripped of their contextual elements, making them sellable to a wider domain of problem statements.

So, are there any Best Practices? – I think not.

I am firmly in the camp with many others who have suggested to get rid of the term Best Practice.

A few alternatives that I’m aware of are – “Good Practice,” “Current Thinking,” and “Contextual Practice.”

For now, as an alternative, I will personally settle for “Good Practice” since it does not carry a sense of finality and allows room for improvement. Conceptually, I do believe that within simple contexts, certain Good Practices can provide effective and efficient results. However, I strongly urge that Good Practices should not be blindly accepted for their apparent goodness. All practices need to be tried at least once within your own context to determine whether a given practice is good for you.

In essence, a good practice does not guarantee that what worked for me will also work for you. I am comfortable accepting practices and judging their “goodness” against my objectives and not benchmarking these against others who have apparently the best implementation of a best practice.


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