Best Practice is not a panacea

Best Practice is a term that’s bandied around a lot these days.

It ascribes to wishful thinking, and speaks to our fundamental human fear of the true nature of reality.

The very idea that there is “one right solution” helps provide the illusion that the world is a well ordered place.  Or at the very least could be, if we just tried hard enough.

However, as students of complexity are well aware, the only legitimate domain to apply “Best Practice” is in the Simple Domain.  This is a domain where Cause and Effect are obvious to all, and also endlessly repeatable. (And as such prime candidates for codification)

607px Cynefin framework Feb 2011

But most of life, especially knowledge work, does not fall into this appealingly controllable space, as much as we might like it to.

To increase our feeling of control, we often like to codify our notions of Best Practice into rules.  After all, if something is truly “best” then all other options are inferior and should therefore be avoided.

We then distribute these rules out to the population of humans whose behaviour we wish to control and sleep soundly knowing that our job is done and the world will be a better place from now on.

Because of course, everybody will follow the rules, and thus both their behaviour and the outcomes that they produce will therefore be “optimal”.

But what if we don’t trust people to follow our rules?

Why then, for the people’s own good (remember we we’re talking about the one best way here) we select some people that we do trust and have them enforce both our rules and their precious Best Practice payloads.

In the average corporation we might call these Best Practices by other names such as “policies”, “rules” or “procedures” and we call our trusted caste “managers” which we can then arrange in a hierarchy so that spatial position corresponds to the level of trust we place in each of them.  Everything is now ship shape and Bristol Fashion!

However, as I’m sure we’ve all experienced first hand.  The human mind likes to game the system.  We do so for all manner of reason: for fun, for malice, for personal gain and oftentimes just to get our job done.

The map does not always match the territory.  Maybe the rule is outdated, inapplicable to our current circumstance or simply badly or meanly written. Regardless, if it conflicts with our superordinate purpose then it gets in the way of the creation of value and betterment.

Regardless of the motivation, the instant a rule is created, people will be looking for ways to get around it, but without risking censure.

The unspoken mandate then becomes to follow the letter, but not the spirit of the rule, and therefore the same applies to the application of the “best” practice it was designed to engender.

This can lead to an arms race between the rule makers and the rule breakers. And so, rather than simply having one rule to follow, we have many.  Each describing the “Best Practice” version of the events that our incoveniently highly variable universe has chosen to throw at us.  Each created in retrospect for a situation which may never arise again.

Which brings us all the way back to the concept of attribution error that I spoke about here.

The rule makers’ attribution error is almost certainly that they believe that every problem is Simple and that Best Practice is therefore universally applicable to every situation.

If that’s your belief, then when you discover that the rules are not in fact engendering your desired outcomes, your reaction to fixing the situation is almost certainly to add more rules, or find ways to enforce the ones you have.  It will keep you busy, that’s for sure, it might even keep you entertained.

But it’s not going to give you better results.

If it’s the wrong tool for the job, it’s irrelevant how skilled you are at using it.

You cannot fix a broken watch with a chainsaw.

But once you see the world for what it is.  That it can be complicated, complex and chaotic, then you can achieve success through applying methods appropriate for managing those domains and give your rulebook a much needed rest.

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