Feb. 6, 2014
Best practice, the application of a single and consistently best method, can be a useful concept.
Unfortunately I see this concept commonly applied incorrectly:
- Incorrect labelling of a “best practice”, which results from the assumption that it is always the single best approach, and thus applying said practice dogmatically.
- Forgetting about context and copying what works for others without understanding potential differences between their context and yours.
- Failure to continue scanning for better practices, results in continuing to apply what was best or good practice, long after a better practice has emerged or context has changed.
One of the problems with “Best”, in practice, is what Jerry Weinberg calls the “Label Law”. The Label Law talks about how labelling something a certain way frames and potentially limits our thinking.
In the case of Best Practice, by calling it “Best” effectively labels it as un-challengable, why would you challenge what is clearly the best?
In complex or complicated environments there often isn’t a single best practice, and by incorrectly expecting this we elevate our practice to a status of “untouchable”.
Often the appropriate response should be to apply “Good” practice (or others depending on context). Good Practice being a set of options or approaches, each of which would be effective or have context specific trade offs.
Stay mindful of the consequence of labelling, applying and even searching for “best”, as it can lead to dangerous dogmatic behaviour, which misses better alternatives and ignores changes in context.
I worked with a group who often asked “What would Apple do?”. Newsletters were redesigned, websites tweaked and graphics quality increased to near pixel perfection. The problem was the product on offer was nothing like Apple’s at all. The industry, client needs and user skill and knowledge were completely different. The end result was looking like copy cats without actually delivering on what the customers really needed, confusing many of the less experienced users with overly simple layouts and massive amounts of time and effort consumed applying what had incorrectly been considered “best” practice. All of which yielded virtually no benefits at all.
Google famously A/B tested 17 different shades of the same color of a button, to find the one that resulted in the highest conversion. At their scale of hundreds of millions of users, something like this could potentially make sense. However when you’re dealing with a few thousand clients, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll benefit from this level of optimisation.
In both of these examples there is a distinct failure to understand the difference in Context.
Understanding why something works in a specific context before applying it to our own context is very important. What works for Apple or Google won’t always work for you. Take time to understand the problem you’re trying to address before looking for solutions.
As a colleague of mine often points out “Hope is not a Strategy”.
Our environments and context are constantly changing, under the influence of many different factors. As a result what worked before won’t work in near future. Best Practice seldom lasts forever.
In order to combat this, individuals and organisations have to develop their learning and change capability. We have to learn how to learn, and practice so we become better at it. We have to practice so we become faster at it.
By continuously experimenting and evolving our systems and practices we keep the wheels turning and improve our ability to notice and respond to change.
As the saying goes, the second best time to start investing in your future is now, the best time was yesterday.
Understand that things are changing constantly, and start evolving your systems today. Use techniques like Operations Reviews, Retrospectives, Visual Management and Metrics to understand what is really happening in your organisation and how you can improve.
A common definition of Practice is “repeated exercise in or performance of an activity or skill so as to acquire or maintain proficiency in it.”
Somewhat ironically, it’s Best to Practice.
Practice your practices. Create and develop habits. Habits of learning. Habits of adaptation and evolution. Acquire proficiency, then continue to practice so that you maintain it.
In closing be very careful what you label as “Best Practice”. Take time to understand the context in which it is truly applicable.
Always keep an eye out for potential improvements or changes so that you can adapt your practice accordingly.
Written by: Clifford Hazell of Scrum Sense