I’ve ranted about best practices enough now, I think, that the point should be entirely clear: best practices usually aren’t. Outside of the simplest problems, where through trial and error we’ve learned what works best, we have a range of choices and options. Our challenge is making sense of situations, weighing options, and making the best call we can under the circumstances. Given that every option will have positives and negatives, our challenge is figuring out how to navigate the avenue we choose in a way that we optimize the upside and minimize the consequences.
The inevitable question—if we accept that there are many options and no perfect one—is how to choose under the circumstances. How do you figure out your current situation, identify the challenge that you are facing (because that’s not clear sometimes) and decide what your options actually are? And how do you make sense of those options in a way that lets you meaningfully make choices in the moment?
To answer that, I’m going to go a little bit backwards first. It’s probably useful to take a brief detour into the psyche and mindset of those who crave best practices and single answers, and understand why those desires—misguided as they might be—persist and endure. In doing that, we’re going to sew together a number of threads of thought that I’ve written about separately over the last couple of years.
Our obsessive need for one right answer arguably isn’t far off the quest to have one grand, universal theory of everything. It’s the desire to model the world down to one, single, elegant equation. We don’t have that, of course. We have a hodgepodge of different theories and models, and making sense of the world by applying them depends upon whatever philosophical stance or branch of science you are approaching the problem from. But the appeal has been an enduring one that has floated over scientific effort since long before Einstein was in short pants.
We want a universal theory because it makes a complex world understandable. It would prove that there are rules that govern our existence on this crazy blue marble floating in the middle of a minor galaxy in one small corner of the universe. It would mean that there was predictability and order, rather than the chaos, randomness, disorder and entropy that we fear determines a lot more about how things work around here.
Ultimately, a single universal way of working is appealing for a number of reasons that relate to us being altogether human. First, as I have written numerous times, we are cognitively lazy. We’d prefer the easy way of doing things, because actually thinking, evaluating, reasoning and deciding tends to look like (and actually be) hard work. The more we can shift to simple rules, easy options and gut choices, the happier we are.
We also have a in built need-to-know, and to know that there is a right answer. The reasons that those stupid click-bait headlines on the interwebz work as powerfully as they do is because you can’t not know. As soon as you are prompted with something as ridiculous as “Eight ways to use radishes to improve your sex life, but you won’t believe the last one!” you have an instant need to satisfy your morbid curiosity about what’s up with radishes, and to see if your guess about the unbelievable one is what they’re writing about.
We’re also sadly a conforming species. We like to be considered part of the in-group, and most of us will go to ridiculous and occasionally lamentable lengths to maintain our status. Once something gets labelled as “best practice” (particularly if it has jargon, an acronym, or—best choice ever—an acronym made up of jargon) we embrace and use it exhaustively. We use terms and practices to broadcast our exclusivity, confirming to those in-the-know that we’re on the inside of the constant social positioning of us and them.
Finally, we like right answers because that means we can know with certainty that we are doing the right thing. We human beings are not a fan of uncertainty. We don’t like picking the wrong answer (see above need to be right all the time) and we want to know that things are going to play out the right way, and everything will be okay. We particularly find discomforting the idea that things might not be okay, and the reason is that we chose wrong and it’s all our fault. Having a ‘right’ choice (even if it’s only a socially accepted ‘right’ choice, which is pretty much what best practices as we mostly misuse the term represent) gives us defensible cover that we made the best choice under the circumstances, and besides, it’s the choice that everyone else makes, so don’t blame us if it all goes pear-shaped.
In other words, there’s a lot going on under the surface—most of which goes unacknowledged—when we inhabit the orbit of best practices. Wrenching ourselves out of their gravitational pull and into a space where we have some breathing room and options, is going to take work. Having yanked ourselves clear, we’re also going to need some other way of thinking and deciding to replace the default of “best practices.“
That’s where simple models can—and arguably should—emerge and assume their rightful place. We are a sense-making species; we want to make sense of the world and create meaning and structure that guides how we inhabit it. That’s why we wanted a right answer in the first place. We are also a choice-making species; we are faced with a constant stream of decisions from the time we wake to the time we sleep (when our subconscious helpfully haunts us with weird alternative choice paths as our dream cycles re-index our brains).
Most of the choices we make are by default. This is what I mean in my repetitive assertion that we are cognitively lazy. We are using what Daniel Kahneman referred to as system one. It’s fuelled by our default choices, decision making biases and gut, intuitive responses. Reason doesn’t live here, and our subconscious is driving the bus. We don’t decide to have coffee in the morning; we push the button and drink what comes out. Some of us try to further hack system one by limiting the choices we present ourselves (for example, Obama famously choosing to wear only black or blue suits, except for that time when he wore the tan one). When we drive somewhere familiar, we do it on autopilot, and struggle to recall any of the details of how we got there later.
What we have on board in our operating system is less “best practice” so much as “default practice.” System one spits out the choices that we tend to go with if we’re not going to invest much thought in considering doing otherwise. It is easy and it’s efficient, but it is also prone to bias. Most of the myriad decision-making biases (but, it’s important to acknowledge, not all) are a consequence of us letting system one loose on the world. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t function with system one; doing otherwise would be exhausting. We need to be clear, though, about what we’re getting when we run largely on autopilot.
When we do use what Kahneman refers to as system two, we’re exercising reason. We’re bringing our conscious brain online, and giving it some serious thought. We need guidance because some guardrails on how we think is useful so that we don’t overwhelm ourselves and wind up looking at all the decisions from all the angles and considering all the options. This is where models can help. This is also where we need to educate ourselves a little bit more on the options that are available.
The essence of models is that they are like a map. While they don’t always look like a map (and very frequently bear an astonishing resemblance to a two-by-two matrix) they serve the same purpose as a map. An oft-repeated assertion is that the map is not the territory. That’s a difficult conceptualization to get your head around at first, but it points out a useful and essential point. The territory is rich and lush and detailed; there are rocks and trees and flowers and animals and chipmunk warrens and buildings and paths and sidewalks and roadways. There is rather a lot going on.
Maps are an abstraction. They are meant to simplify and point out the really useful bits that we care about right now. A roadmap highlights just that: the roads. You don’t see cowpaths (unless it’s a Michelin map); there are no buildings. A topographical map highlights the shape of the land, but not necessarily the roads. A soil map highlights, well, soil type. If you think about the back seat of your rental car at the end of your last vacation, it was probably full of maps: a roadmap or three of the region. A map of the airport that still had you circling it three times before you escaped. A map of the resort you visited. Another map of the wineries you toured. A map of the hotel you stayed at. So many maps, each with their own express purpose and focus.
Models are a lot like that. They focus on one thing, and present it in its purest and most abstract form. The Eisenhower matrix of prioritization is a model: in a two-by-two matrix (they really do show up a lot) it compares urgency with importance, theoretically prompting us to focus on the second quadrant that combines what is not urgent but is important, tending for most people to be an aspiration that routinely gets ignored.
Knowledge can be mapped using what is called the Johari window, yet another two-by-two matrix, that contrasts that which is known to us, and that which is known to others. What is known to others and ourselves is the arena where we can have a reasoned conversation and debate. What we know that others don’t appears to be an impenetrable façade, and what others know that we don’t represents our blindspot. The unknown area where neither we nor others have any familiarity is the great abyss, marked on early maps of the world as “here there be monsters.”
Those are two really simple models. There are many more, for many different purposes. There are models that map and make sense of organizational priorities, environmental influences and strategic options. There are models that help to reveal and explore political behaviour, organizational culture and psychological functioning. There are models that guide the welding of power, and how to exercise influence when you have no power whatsoever.
Like the maps in the back seat of your rental car, none of the models are connected to each other. There is no specific relationship, even if they describe the same or similar territory. There is no linear thread through them that connects them all together. We get to a place where we find a particular problem, and we search for the relevant map to make sense of where we are and how to appropriately navigate.
So it is with models. We collect them through our lives. They don’t necessarily relate. Some overlap, others conflict and still others offer new insights that provide explanations to longstanding questions. As a simple example, let’s take personality. There are dozens (some of which overlap and duplicate each other). I can think of at least fifteen of them by name. I have working knowledge of six of those, and expert understanding of two. In different contexts, I will use all of them.
You might wonder why one person might need several different ways of considering personality, which—on the face of it—are all evaluating and assessing the exact same thing. While they are all exploring the same construct, they look at it in different ways. Each model highlights different dimensions, and even when the dimensions are similar—or theoretically the same—they have different operational definitions of what they mean. This is a feature, not a bug. Where the knee-jerk reaction might be “we need to standardize and be consistent in our definitions” the reality is that each perspective provides some degree of richness and nuance that, in the right circumstances, can be useful. Sometimes we need to work with introversion and extroversion, and sometimes insights can be more appropriately arrived at by considering agreeableness and narcissism.
Life is a series of on-going choices, decisions and situations that we need to make sense of. Models provide a way of creating meaning, illustrating options and considering alternatives and consequences. They are not unified or integrated. There is no one overarching model of organizational behaviour or culture of functioning. Trying to build one would be not just difficult but also pointless. The more models you have available to you to make sense of what is going on, the better off you are and the more effectively you can assess your options. You might draw on one that feels contextually appropriate, or two or three to highlight different dimensions or viewpoints of a singularly difficult challenge.
The value is in accumulating awareness and understanding of lots of little models, each of which can help you to get different insights and different perspective at different times. Building awareness and understanding of a variety of models means you operationally understand how they work and when they are relevant. The more situational awareness you are able to bring to the exercise, the better the decisions you can support. They may still not be perfect. You still won’t know for sure how things will play out. You will still get some wrong. But you will know why, and you will have that much more insight to arrive at a better choice next time.