What do we mean when we speak of Best Practice?
Best Practice is a rather polarising term. Very few people are neutral about it. It’s either the watchword of an organisation or an instant irritant. But what does it actually mean?
Genuine Best Practice
As previously discussed, in Authentically Simple Systems – the term “Best Practice” is entirely valid. Given the current body of knowledge, there is One Best Way to perform this task.
To do otherwise would be, by definition, either inefficient or unecessarily prone to error.
But this term is used widely outside of the Simple Domain; and not ironically.
Best (for me) Practice
A lot of the time “Best Practice” is really just a shorthand for “Best for Me” Practice.
But this shorthand can actually hide two completely different intents…
Best (for me) Practice, given that I don’t want to take responsibility for my own actions…
This is, at least for me, is the darker and more frustrating meaning I’ve encountered.
It often equates to “just tell me what to do”, with the subtle undertone of:
“If this doesn’t work, then it’s not my fault, because you told me it would work. I didn’t fail, the practice did. And so did you for recommending it.”
Best (for me) Practice, given my context and your knowledge
If you’re not a Complexity Geek, then you’re probably not as hung up on the term “Best Practice” as much as some people are. To you it infers something actually far more wooly, subtle and frankly more complex:
“Given everything you’ve seen about our situation so far, combined with everything you know and your general experience, what are the best recommendations you have for us?”
Which to me, seems fair enough. Even if I still rankle occasionally at the term.
So how can we tell the difference? (And also avoid a pointless argument about nomenclature?)
Practice or Principle?
One aspect of the concept of “Best Practice” that is I think universal (regardless of the meaning you adhere to the term), is that a Best Practice is something that’s been tried before by somebody else
The logic is sound (if not overly courageous):
Somebody else has already taken this risk, figured this out and now I’m going to reap all the rewards, while taking none of the risk.
This all seems fair and theoretically puts a new spin on our two “Best for Me” cases above, effectively merging them. Both are simply risk adverse and wanting help.
But now we’re back to square one – because it’s only for systems that live in the Simple Space that cause and effect is infinitely repeatable.
And if that’s true, then Best Practice may not be as simple as it seems after all
Fundamental Attribution Error and confusing correlation with causality
Just because somebody has tried something before and they were successful (even repeatedly so), doesn’t mean that it was those practices in particular that caused (or even contributed) to their success.
As science progresses, every day we’re discovering new evidence that much of what we considered causal is now correlated at best, and in some cases completely unrelated.
Best Principles? (or how to tell the difference)
And this is how you can tell the difference between a “Best for me in my context” and a “Best for not taking any responsibility” intent.
Those folks who are genuinely interested in better outcomes for their problems in their context will take on board the concept of Best Principles – Principles and heuristics that successful organisations use in order to develop their own (evolving set of) Best Practices.
And those who are interested only in shirking responsibility? They’ll listen politely and then quietly insist that you tell them what to do.
You could argue that this is precisely why branded methods are so popular. They’re less about buying a solution than they are about acquiring a scapegoat. ↩
Also, well done for reading this far. ↩
Ironic no? ↩
And hopefully shown to work. because otherwise we’ll have to class “Tilting at Windmills” as Best Practice too. ↩
To make this clearer at the very least you’d have to be doing exactly what the other organisation was doing – in which case I would question where your competitive advantage was coming from. But even then, you’re almost certainly doing it with a different set of people. ↩
Pun partially intended. ↩
I’ve met the odd entrepreneur that attributes Apple’s success directly to the less cuddly parts of Steve Job’s personality; apparently nobody else at Apple does jack squat. ↩
By which I mean there is no scientific evidence to support any kind of relationship whatsoever; however likely or plausible it might seem to the layperson that there is a link. This seems especially true of dietary advice. ↩
Whether or not this is because of an innate character flaw or simply that this is what they’ve been incentivised to do is a topic for another day. ↩