If best practices aren’t actually best, then why do they exist? What is the point of process, of practices, of standards even, if they don’t reliably produce good results? While some standards have value, and there are simple situations where there might be a best way of doing things, when it comes to the strategic work that we take on, we are far removed from those statements being true. Even when we want there to be a way of working, one that is consistent and repeatable, the reality we find ourselves in is usually very different. It helps to know what to draw on instead if we are going to be successful.
“Best practices” is s term that we love to bandy about. Even I will find myself relying on it at times, although I try very hard to avoid uttering its syllables. Best practices are frequently espoused as the essential and optimal means of attaining results. Generally, they are absolutely nothing of the sort. Nonetheless, many use the term as a proactive defense to justify their preferred way of working, or an after-the-fact rationalization the actions they have taken. This is my attempt to explain as clearly as I can why this is a dangerous and inappropriate idea.
There is a subset of the population that is in love with the idea of “best practices.” It is incredibly appealing to believe that there is one right way of doing things. Simply calling something “best practice” is to implicitly make it unassailable. And yet how we think about best practices says a lot more about the person that it does about the practice.
Process needs to work. To work, it needs to be relevant. That means that what we implement needs to be contextually appropriate, relevant and accepted. Cookie-cutter solutions don’t work here. What works depends. But the real question is, “what does it depend on?”
I’m a process geek. You might safely assume, then, that I would be a fan of “best practices.” You would be very wrong. Best practices generally aren’t. Unlike the promised intent, there is usually more than one best way to proceed in a given situation. We ignore that at our peril.
Process is appealing. It provides structure and guidance and rules and boundaries. The challenge is that organizations are messy and complex. Projects are difficult. They require work and adaptation. You can’t just take process from one place, apply it to another, and expect it to work properly. You need to do something else.