Working patterns: The trap of “best practices”

Best PracticesWhen you start thinking about it, the concept of “best practice” seems very logical – it’s supposed to be the best way to achieve the desired results when dealing with a certain task, which was already proven as such by someone else. Basically, you can call it an OPTIMAL WORKING PATTERN.

Of course, if you keep thinking about it, you’ll notice several potential problems, both in the concept itself and in how it’s used in reality. Because, as we all know, when any abstract concept is applied to a real situation, problems tend to arise.

Problems such as:

  1. Non-applicability due to context

When something is defined as a “best practice”, it practically means that this method was successfully used by at least several people for a certain period of time. The question that arises is pretty simple: are those people similar to you in regard to their circumstances and can their experience be therefore applicable to your own circumstances?

Can we apply Japanese employee-motivation techniques to North American employees just because they work so well in Japan? Should we apply marketing strategies devised by a successful banker to a commercial airline? Is the formal hierarchical structure of big companies the best managerial solution for start-ups?

The ultimate truth is that no solution exists out of its context, so even when something is legitimately proclaimed as the optimal method by someone somewhere – it doesn’t necessarily mean that you may apply this “best practice” at your workplace. Why? Because the people who came up with it may be too different from you and your circumstances.

2.  False feeling of security

Another problem with “best practices” is the feeling of false security that they may inspire among those who use them. How can you raise an alarm about an imminent threat when everything is supposed to be performed according to the BEST practice? Why would even think about raising an alarm, when by definition you know that everything you’re doing is right just because someone else has proved it to be a “best practice”?

Everyone likes to joke about the economy today, but do you remember the pretty recent times when we used to preach to the whole world that THIS IS THE BEST POSSIBLE SYSTEM and that everyone should copy it as soon as possible? It really doesn’t look like that now, but it’s important to remember that many professionals have tried to raise an alarm at the time and they were unsuccessful, among other things, because of the difficulty to challenge something that was viewed as “best practice” by the majority.

3.  Inhibition of innovation

Of course, if everything you’re doing right now is the best, why would you want to improve? Why bring new ideas if we have already achieved the optimum? Why change the system that is modeled on other successful systems and doesn’t show any signs of upcoming problems?

Because things change with time.

Think about what was defined as best practices in medicine about a hundred years ago. Or even two hundred years. Too far-fetched? OK, then think about how medicine has changed even since you were born. Did the same best practices remain at place even through one generation? What would become of the medical best practices accepted today in ten years?

The problem is very simple – when we define something as “best”, we lose some of our motivation to innovate. And just to be clear about the opposite phenomenon: if “best practices” are changed every year – may be they did not actually deserve the name of “best” from the beginning…

4.   Who said it’s the BEST practice?!

However, the biggest problem with “best practices” is much more severe.

How much can we be sure about a successfulness of a certain method when our ability to measure its success is very limited? How much do we actually know about the measurement that was actually performed by the people who decreed the practice as “best”? I’ve already written about how numbers are easily manipulated in order to present the needed message, but in this case it’s even more critical, because as everything else, best practices could be sold as a product! So there could be a very deliberate agenda behind trying to convince the practitioners of a certain field that some practice should be universally adopted.

This means you have to keep in mind that even when some practice was advised by a panel of established professionals, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they have based their decision on analysis of valid data or that their analysis was totally devoid of bias.

So what you should do instead?

Don’t fall into the pitfalls I’ve just described. Times change too fast for effective methods to remain at the top long enough to be proclaimed “best practices”. However, “worst practices” could be recognized easily enough and they tend to remain in this quality for a much longer time. So maybe we should turn our focus to them instead 🙂

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4 thoughts on “Working patterns: The trap of “best practices”

  1. Anya:
    I agree with most of what you say regarding best practices as they were developed and used by Frederick W. Taylor. Plus Taylor’s “The One Best Way” was focused on efficiency alone and tended to inhibit human development.
    There have been some improvements along the lines you suggest as weaknesses of the classic model.
    Maturity models, like the CMMi addresses problems specific to software development and are only applicable for certain problem areas and should be adjusted to the problem at hand following strict guidelines. They also expect a clear focus on results as perceived by the customer and end user.
    Bodies of knowledge, like the PMBOK provide ordered lists of areas of expertise that are required for a specific domain (i.e. Project Management, Software Development or Requirements Elicitation), but require actual practices to be developed locally applying the knowledge included in the BOK.
    Quality Models, like ISO 9000 describe required practices at a high level of abstraction, like broad checklists with the things that require serious thought when you develop a Quality Management System.
    Of course, I agree there are too many gurus, magicians and snake oil peddlers pushing Their merchandise.


  2. Fungus, thank you so much for the great recap of various approaches!
    What stands out is that, none of them addresses our biases and thinking predispositions (where only one of many is believing blindfolded to the stamp of “best practice”) that predetermine the quality of outcome long before we choose what approach to adopt…
    Thanks again for your wonderful comment!

  3. “Best Practices” can lead one to becoming a “Prisoner of Process” if followed blindly. I will take Smart Human Beings anyday that can adapt over process experts that cannot.

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