What’s Wrong with Best Practices?

That is a question I get very often from people who know that I keep away from prescriptive approaches. I’ve been giving some quick responses but it would be better if next time I can point to a more elaborated answer. And here it is.

While I have a lot of sympathy for those that object to ‘Best Practice’ as a name — even more — to those that object it as a claim, my uneasiness is somewhat different. I’ll focus here on that.

Some best practices are very useful. In fact, most mature and well-applied best practices for carrying out some technical task, from taking a blood test, painting a wall or repairing an engine, to building a factory or a ship, are indeed valuable (as long as they don’t suffocate innovation).

The real problem is when best practices are applied to people and social systems. I call this a ‘problem’, but it is in fact a huge opportunity for many. Most of the contemporary non-fiction books, especially management and self-help texts, have been seizing this opportunity extremely well. It’s not easy to find a best seller in this category or a popular article, that doesn’t provide some sort of prescriptions and advice, often numbered, on how to achieve or avoid something. Maybe it is a best practice for best sellers. Let’s give it a try then:

 

Four Reasons Why You Should Be Cautious When Applying Best Practices:

 

1. Correlations.

How Best Practices come about? Some individuals or organisations, become known or are later made known by the actions of the best practice discoverers and proponents, as successful according to some norms. Let’s call these individuals or organisations ‘best practice pioneer’. Then one or more observers, the ‘best practice discoverer’, studies the pioneers to find out what made them successful. The discoverer first takes certain effects, and then selects, by identifying commonalities, what she or he believes were the causes. That is followed by a generalisation of the commonalities, from which point they begin their life as prescriptions, regardless if they are called ‘best practices’, ‘methodologies’, ‘techniques’, ‘recipes’,’templates’, or something else. Later they are tested and based on feedback, reappear in more mature forms and variations, in some cases supplied with scalability criteria and conditions for a successful application. The successes and failures of those that apply them give birth to Best Practices on applying Best Practices.

The problem is, that the discoverers select common patterns among the observed successful pioneers, and infer causal relation between these commonalities and those that were the criteria to select that set of pioneers in the first place. Then such correlation leads the discoverer to select what to pay attention to, and every pattern that supports the hypothesis based on the selected commonalities would be preferred over those that don’t.

2. The risk of over-simplification.

Best practices help us deal with external stimuli, when they are too many to handle, by prompting which ones to pay attention to and how to react to them. The only way to deal with a situation is when the number of responses is higher than the number of the stimuli, within a given goal set (Ashby’s law). Or in other words, best practices are tools for reducing external variety. But not only that, they also provide means for amplifying internal variety in a special way – coupled with those stimuli that you are advised to pay attention to. So if that assumption was wrong, and it often is, neither the external variety is reduced, nor the internal is amplified.

3. Assumptions about the application context.

I used to be a practitioner of PRINCE2. What I still appreciate is a few smart techniques and in fact – the name itself. The name is the important disclaimer I’m missing in most methodologies and other types of best practices: they only work in controlled environments. They work when most of the conditions of the design-time, if you allow me the IT jargon, are unchanged in run-time. This is rarely the case and increasingly less so. Which brings another interesting phenomenon: the same conditions that make the world less predictable also help quickly productise and spread best practices. They come with better marketing and with more authority in a world in which less of what has happened could prepare you for what will.

4. The habits created by Best Practices.

The worst is when people hide behind the authority of best practices or their proponents. If not that, best practices create habits of first looking for best practices, instead of thinking. And then, there is the alternative cost: the more time people spend on learning best practices, the less time they have for developing their senses for detection of weak signals and for developing their capabilities for new responses.

In summary, if you are sure that certain best practice is useful, and it’s not based on wrong inference and does not lead you to dismiss important factors, and the situation you are in is not complex, and it doesn’t weaken your resilience, then go ahead, use it.

 

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