The Myth of Best Practices

As I acknowledged in my previous post, I’m a bit of a process geek. Process is what I do. It’s what I’ve spent a good deal of my career doing. Although I won’t go quite so far as to say “it’s what I live for,” I do value and appreciate the role it can play (when developed and implemented appropriately). As I’ve also acknowledged, bad process implemented poorly drives me to utter despair.

You might, therefore, safely presume that I’m a fan of “best practices.” You would be mistaken. Few terms (with the possible exceptions of “solutionizing,” “right-sizing,” “perfect storm,” and “adulting”) are as likely to raise my ire. To be entirely clear on where I stand, I utterly loathe the term “best practices” and everything it purportedly stands for.

As a concept, of course, it’s relatively innocuous, and even arguably somewhat appealing. If there is some “best” way of accomplishing something, it’s a safe bet you would want to know about it. The problem is that it is rarely the case that a situation has one best approach. It is far more likely that there are several possible approaches, and the most viable one depends upon the situation, context and desired outcome.

In saying all of this, I fully understand that for some the answer “it depends” is considered to be as loathsome as I view “best practices.” I even understand—in empathetic terms—why people don’t actually like “it depends.” The fact that there might be any number of possible approaches to a given situation is considered by some to be subjective, inconsistent and wishy-washy. There is a (large) subset of the population that likes clear, crisp, hard-edged and well-defined answers. I just don’t happen to be a part of that subset.

That’s not to say that there aren’t, in fact, situations that “best practices” do actually exist. In those situations, however, we don’t typically use the term. The fact that both of these statements are true provides some useful direction and context about what’s going on.

In exploring and examining a given problem, a helpful perspective is to consider how clear or ambiguous the situation is. A useful framework to describe this is the Cynefin model, developed by David Snowden. “Cynefin” is a Welsh word that essentially translates as “sense of place.” In his model, Snowden defines five states: simple, complicated, complex, chaotic and disordered. The idea of disorder is a little beyond what we need to consider right now, but the other states provide some useful insight.

In Snowden’s model, each state is unique, and has different hallmarks that define and distinguish it from the others. “Simple” situations are essentially those where there are clear and well-defined questions and equally clear and straightforward answers. “Complicated” ups the ante a little bit, in that the interplay of different factors mean that understanding and evaluating what’s going on takes more effort. There are more interdependencies, and those take more time and effort to figure out (or more expertise to provide understanding and guidance). Both simple and complicated situations are, however, governed by the laws of cause and effect. The situation is knowable, and clear and objective answers can be worked out, even if this might take some time to actually do.

Once we cross the divide into “complex,” things get a bit more difficult and convoluted. Not only are there a large number of interrelationships and factors at play, but how these interrelate is less obvious and more inconsistent. Complex inter-dynamics mean that not only is there a lot going on, but we are no longer dealing with direct cause and effect. Instead, we’re responding to the unpredictable intersections of different viewpoints, agendas and actions. Most organizational systems and change efforts have embedded in them a significant amount of complexity, which is precisely why they are so hard to manage.

Finally, “chaotic” situations are exactly that. There is no order, logic or inherent relationships at play to understand. The situation is dynamic, unpredictable, unstable and dangerous. What to do—and how to operate—is the most challenging and the least straightforward.

So what does all of this have to do with “best practices?” I’m so glad that you asked. As a rule, where we most want best practices is in situations that are least clear and comprehensible. Complex and chaotic situations are, in particular, where we’d like some specific guidance on what to do and how to function. The problem is that these are exactly the situations where best practices are least likely to be relevant or even possible. The more difficult the situation, and the more difficult it is to discern what’s going on, the more challenging it will be to come up with any answer on what to do, let alone a single, objectively definable “best” answer.

In point of fact, Snowden makes the essential assertion that the only domain where best practices actually exist are in addressing simple problems. It is expressly because the dynamics are simple, clear and direct that specific solutions are possible. Our cars have optimal maintenance schedules, largely because our car manufacturers have empirical data on what is likely to go wrong and when it is most appropriate to take preventative action. And when our car actually does break down, there is a specific repair that is most likely and best recommended to fix it. Simple situations are most amenable to the use of conditional “if-then” rules: if this happens, then do this.

The organizational problems that we encounter in our projects—particularly our most difficult, ambiguous but important ones—don’t line up with simple “if-then” conditions, however. We get faced with competing stakeholder expectations and interests. There are different process improvement strategies that we might engage in. We might have different technology solutions, or competing products, that represent viable paths forward.

Our most intractable problems, though, aren’t ones that are just complicated: they’re complex or chaotic. The rules of cause and effect aren’t just not obvious, they don’t exist. The dynamics between organizations and systems—and particularly between people—result in situations that are no longer predictable, knowable or fully understandable. We might sense trends and inclinations, but that’s a lot fuzzier than the rules and logic of cause and effect. While people might have a tendency to respond in a particular manner, that doesn’t mean they will; people retain the capacity to surprise, and will often do so when we least expect it, and when we are least prepared to deal with it.

It’s situations like this where the idea of “best practices” is a quaint concept rapidly receding in the distance in our rear view mirror. We have to make our best call with imperfect information, and without a clear understanding of how circumstances will unfold and strategies will play out. That’s why we’re uncomfortable. That’s why we want a definitive answer. That’s why we look for “best practices.” We’re looking for an easy way out of a complex situation that often has few appealing avenues by which to proceed.

While these are the situations where we may most often want clear answers, it’s also where we should be most concerned about them. People offering rapid, precise answers in these circumstances typically don’t want to deal with the complexity they face, want to wish it away or are trying to sell us something. In all instances, we should proceed with caution.

A recent client example provides a good illustration of this. I was working with an organization to help them develop an estimation process. In theory, this is a straightforward activity: identify dimensions by which you can assess the relative size of a given project, know what attributes cause estimates to vary and develop standard estimates of effort, cost and time against the activities within your process. The problem was that the organization had no consistent way of comparing projects. There was no defined process that was employed. Actual tracking of previous project performance was abysmal at best and more likely to be entirely non-existent. Much of how estimates were developed at the time was the result of senior staff operating—with impressive accuracy—on a gut intuitive level.

The executive sponsoring this effort wanted a straightforward and predictable result. He had little patience for the fuzziness, uncertainty and downright opacity of how estimates were actually developed and projects were managed. He was looking for someone to parachute in a solution that would work there, because it had already been proven to work elsewhere. In reality, such an outcome was neither practical or possible, but that didn’t stop the sponsor from demanding it, and expressing frustration and impatience when clear and well defined answers weren’t forthcoming.

It’s in situations like this that organizations become entirely susceptible to consultants and vendors offering shiny, slickly-packaged solutions that promise readily adopted and implemented results. And while this is enormously appealing on the surface, the actual results are often altogether unsatisfactory. The client gets blinded by their desire for a seemingly quick win. The vendor wants a foot in the door that will extend into a longer term engagement. “Unanticipated circumstances” then emerge that make the process far more complicated, convoluted and uncertain than what was promised in the sales presentation.

Just because we want easy answers doesn’t mean that it’s reasonable to expect them. The promise of “best practices” is often a siren song designed to lure unsuspecting organizations into uncharted waters, minimizing and downplaying the hazards and danger that lurks just beneath the surface. We get sucked in at our peril. The simple reality is that complex and complicated problems demand considered and contextual solutions.

The right answer depends on the situation at hand, the organization, the environment, the players and the politics. The right approach will be one that is adapted to the circumstances. It will also be one that adaptively responds to what is going on as the situation evolves, as new understandings develop and as new opportunities emerge. For many of us, these are the challenges we most enjoy, and most look forward to helping organizations to solve. But “best practices” aren’t the tools for managing them. “It depends” plays a much more important role.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be getting in to these themes in a little bit more detail. I’ll look at how and why we build the processes we do, what works and doesn’t work, and what makes sense in making process useful, constructive and meaningful.

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