Pragmatic Practices—Not ‘Best’ Practices

I have long abhorred the term ‘best practice.’ What are labelled as ‘best practices’ often aren’t, or are only particularly useful and relevant in specific circumstances. The phrase is often used as a not-so-thinly-veiled effort at micromanagement, imposing the way someone wants something done through insinuating that not doing it that way would be in someway inferior or fail to measure up.

Most particularly, there is a great deal of ego behind the assertion that a particular practice is the ‘best’. By its very phrasing, the phrase denies the potential for improvement. It criticizes all approaches that have come before it. It holds in judgement any suggestion of doing something in a different manner than is being proposed.

And, of course, there is the question of how ‘best’ is in fact evaluated. By whose standards? Based upon what criteria? In what context? In comparison to what alternatives?

I have, as a result, often found myself falling back on the use of the term ‘better practices.’ There is still judgement in the term, in that there is inherent comparison and striving for improvement. But there is also an allowance for context; that in some situations, one way of approaching a problem might be appropriate, while in another situation a different way is more relevant. It reflects that there is more than one way, and that multiple methods may in fact be valid, appropriate and relevant.

Most recently, however, I came across a different term in a different context, contained in a presentation about using WordPress as a web platform. The phrase that struck me was, “In this session you will not learn the best practice but you will learn a pragmatic one.” It’s a powerful statement. It encapsulates a brilliantly simple idea, deftly and well.

What the idea of a ‘pragmatic practice’ suggests (at least to me) is that yes, there are multiple ways of working and doing things. But what is important are practices that are practical and that do, in fact, work. We don’t need perfect practices. We don’t need best practices. In some instances, we may not even require better ones. We simply require approaches that work. That are practical and relevant, and that solve real problems in meaningful ways.

What this does is offer a perspective to fundamentally reframe how we think about and evaluate appropriateness of the practices we adopt. We stop the relative comparison and one-upmanship of ‘best’ and ‘better’ in favour of assessing what will work. We look at what is appropriate. We settle for, when it’s relevant, ‘good enough.’ We adopt the approaches that work, that work for us, and that work for the situation that we find ourselves in.

Which raises an interesting thought: What would happen if organizations stopped their relentless quest for best practices, and instead contended themselves with the adoption of pragmatic ones?

One Comment to “Pragmatic Practices—Not ‘Best’ Practices”

  1. Mike Hughes says:

    Hey Mark,

    Good points. I’ve said for years that “Best Practice” is the one an organization can actually implement and get results from – i.e. what you have termed a “pragmatic practice”.

    I think the generic term “Leading Practices” is a much better one than “Best” as leading implies approaches that numerous others have had some success with, and which might be applied as the basis for improvement in other situations.

    Always a pleasure to read your thoughts which are always insightful.

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