A simple truth: best practices very often are not.
I have made that assertion numerous times in many different formats and forums. In discussions with a client this week about this very subject, though, I came to realize that I’ve never definitively committed to writing down what my actual issues are with best practices as a concept. While I’m not sure how that little oversight came to pass, I thought I would take advantage of this opportunity to set the record straight, at least from my perspective. Despite any misgivings I might have, I have no doubt that organizations will continue to bandy the term about liberally and continue to apply it inadvisedly.
To begin this exploration, it helps to understand what we are actually talking about. In looking up the term, Wikipedia offers the following, somewhat cumbersome, definition: “A best practice is a method or technique that has been generally accepted as superior to any alternatives because it produces results that are superior to those achieved by other means…” If we cut to the chase, what this seems to imply is that best practices are those that are proven to produce results.
The problem is that this definition is not even close to being clear. Instead, it is full of qualifications and dissembling. There are any number of challenging concepts contained within it that we could pick apart. We aren’t sure of what scope we are referring to, for example, when referencing “method” or “technique.” Could that be how to play chess? Or perhaps endgame strategies for chess? Does it reflect the best techniques for employing one’s knight, or is it as specific as bishop and knight endgame strategies (of which there is an entire book all on its own)?
More particularly problematic, though, is the term “generally accepted.” We start with something that seems to imply some universally objective level of superior proven performance. We then immediately qualify it by throwing it under the bus of popular opinion. Best practices aren’t what is proven to work, they are just what most people consider to be a better way of working. In fact, we’re now well into the territory of four out of five dentists recommending Trident.
While that might sound like a joke, that’s largely how science works. The idealistic view of science is that it uses cold, hard discipline to determine objective and unyielding truths about how the world works. The reality is that scientists spend their lives constantly trying to prove themselves wrong, and cautiously offering probabilistic improvements on what came before. Science does not speak in definitive terms; it instead offers qualified statements of what might be proven to be somewhat more effective within the bounds of certain conditions.
It might be a best practice, for example, to wear a mask during a coronavirus pandemic. We know this not because of common sense, although you can get there from here, but because statistical evidence shows measured reduction in distribution of the coronavirus in instances where people wear masks as compared to when they don’t. It’s not that wearing a mask will with absolute certainty prevent you getting a virus (or catching a cold, for that matter). It just means that you are more likely to be protected; there will always be qualifying circumstances when you might still get ill. In this context, “best practice” actually means “better than other approaches we’ve found” or at the very least “better than the alternative of not wearing a mask.”
A separate complication is that, going back to our definition, it goes on to suggest something can become a best practice “…because it has become a standard way of doing things.” In other words, we have just dusted off and polished up our shiny new concept of best practices, only to underwhelmingly declare that for all practical purposes it means, “because we’ve always done it that way.”
If you fear that I’m exaggerating here, let me take you behind the scenes to explore how standards actually get set in real life. Having been on the inside of this process more than once, I can attest that it is far less romantic than some might presume. It generally involves many litres of bad coffee consumed over multi-day sessions in hotel meeting rooms in far-flung cities, where a host of interested representatives have gathered to parse the latest version of the standard they are responsible for maintaining. This involves heated debate over word choice, sentence structure, inconsistent application of terms throughout the document, and essential reinforcement of the concepts that were already there. The qualifications for being said participants generally amount to “works in the field, interested in the process and willing to fly economy-class to difficult-to-reach destinations that mutually inconvenience everybody.”
What is agreed upon as standard is what, in such circumstances, everyone in the room can grudgingly accept. In other words, it’s the lowest common denominator result that emerges as the meeting wearily comes to a close. Advancement is slow and incremental. Progress is measured in inches, and reflected minor adjustments and subtle word choices. What emerges largely looks like what it did at the outset. The process is progressive elaboration of a core, unchanging essential structure. Radical reinvention or wholesale modification is rare and largely unthinkable.
It is important to recognize that what is theoretically lauded as best practice, then, is not what is cutting edge and exceptional. It is what is generally accepted, derivative, widely adopted and largely safe. While that is perfectly defensible and probably represents the happy place of many conservative executives and traditional organizations, it belies the stirring inspiration that the term “best practices” actually implies. If that is what you are implementing, you are never going to be the best. You will always be following someone else’s innovation. That may be just fine, if that is your business model. But know that you are doing that, own that choice, and be comfortable with it.
When you ascribe “best practices” to the hand-me-down innovations of other organizations, however, that doesn’t imply a level of ownership or comfort. It suggests a defensive posture of, “it was good enough for them, so it should be good enough for us.” In fact, organizations advancing that they employ best practices otherwise invented elsewhere are trying to drape themselves in the reflected glory of someone else. All the while, though, what they are doing is championing, over and over again, “We follow the crowd!” And again, if that’s your choice, fine. But seriously, you have to own that choice.
An example that hit my radar this week were OKRs. For starters, this leads with a three-letter acronym that everyone is presumed to understand (the use of TLAs as exclusionary communication tactics to obscure meaning, create divisions and imply superiority of knowledge is a whole other screed). The acronym stands for “objectives and key results.” In some management circles that really relish buzzwords, the term is currently enjoying something of a heyday. They are even deemed by some to be—dare I say it—best practice.
The reason for both the popularity and the anointing of magical status on the idea of “objectives and key results” is very simple: Google uses them. OKRs have been celebrated as an essential contributor to Google’s success. Unsurprisingly, everyone else wants a little of that fairy dust to rub off on them. The consequence is the rapid ascendancy of OKRs as the essential management framework that everyone must adopt, lest they fail in their aspirations and be found wanting in their management practices.
Just where did OKRs come from, however? Well, they were introduced to Google very early on by John Doerr, a venture capitalist and early investor. He learned about the concept from Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, through a workshop on Intel’s approach to management by objectives. Now, management by objectives has been around for a long time. The term and concept was originally conceived by Peter Drucker, back in 1954, and popularized from there. Hewlett-Packard was at one point the poster child of MBOs, claiming significant contribution to their success (although the historical record of HP should raise questions about their continued viability). Management by objectives was still a hot concept regularly applied in organizations in the eighties and nineties, as I was starting my career and then developing as a management consultant.
The idea of management by objectives as conceived by Drucker, however, actually echoes a number of the ideas of a much earlier management guru: Mary Parker Follett. In 1926, she published her essay “The Giving of Orders,” which made the case for situation and context as an essential form of collaborative setting of direction and determination of focus.
In other words, the essence of today’s hot and trendy topic enjoys a history of nearly one hundred years. It has simply been dressed up and repackaged, over and over again, by a progressive series of consultants, gurus and authors seeking to make a mark. Which leads us right back to where we started.
Having made it this far in my little screed, you might be wondering if all of this is just semantics. It would be easy to see many of my faults as an issue of word choice, and particularly the brazenness of attaching the term “best” to approaches and ways of working that are most assuredly nothing close to that mark. That may be true to an extent. Words are important, and the way that we use words is critical. Describing something as “best” when it actually is more a reflection of “what everyone can at least agree as a foundation” is a pretty egregious misuse of the language.
My concerns go deeper than that, however, and specifically because of the word choice. There are numerous people (and by numerous, I am speaking about a number that is easily in the millions) who genuinely believe that in applying “best practices” they are doing a good job. That if what they apply is termed “best practice” then there can be no fault found with their actions. The label of “best practice” becomes something like a good management seal of approval. The potential and perceived consequence is that now that I’ve adopted best practices, no more thinking is required.
More particularly, the label of “best practice” is, by its very wording, implying a fixed state of being. It does not speak to the idea of “better practice,” “reasonable practice,” or simply “a good place to start that still requires some thought in application and adaptation.” All of those would be far more reasonable—and defensible—terms to describe what we are talking about. Instead, we get the definitive imprimatur of “best.” There are legions of practitioners who—on no better authority than someone used that term—fundamentally believe that adherence to best practice means that it must be done exactly that way. Worse, they actively promote that notion to others. The consequence is you have wide dissemination of unthinking and unchanging practices that in no way do what it says on the tin.
Unthinking adoption is going to get you nowhere. Pick any standard and apply it literally and without consideration and you will fail. The PMBOK is not a structure that will lead you to success in managing projects, and yet many hold it up as such. Adoption of OKRs will not lead you to accomplishment of all of your organizational goals, although that is the hope that consultants offer and executives cling to desperately. The practice and the template is not what gets you where you want to go; it is the thinking behind it. I don’t need OKRs, MBOs or any other TLA to set good objectives. I just need to be clear on what I am trying to accomplish, and how I communicate that to others.
Thought—contextual, appropriate, considered reason—is what produces results. Practices can be a guide to that thought, but that is at best the role they can serve. They will work in some instances, and fail miserably in others. Blindly following practices, best or otherwise, can lead you quickly down not just the garden path, but all the way down the rabbit hole. Doing the hard work of thinking about what you need, and how best to accomplish it, given your current circumstances and situation, is what will ultimately allow you to be successful. Best practices are the promise we look towards that we might be able to avoid the hard work, and find a simple and easy answer. I’m here to tell you that for the difficult problems most of us are faced with solving, the easy answer doesn’t exist. Nor should best practices.
Where have you found best practices to get in the way, and how have you been able to implement better practices instead?