Photo by David Hurt

The problem with “best practice”

Photo by David HurtI often hear that we should do something “because it’s best practice”. This raises alarm bells with me, as it sounds a lot like “because other people say so”. It’s more productive to avoid the phrase “best practice” and instead be explicit about why the practice is valuable.

I was reminded about this today when my colleague David Carboni pointed to article about the flawed popularity of waterfall development, followed by an offline conversation about people blindly following precedent with the claim that “it’s best practice”.

Those familiar with the Cynefin framework will be aware that Dave Snowden says best practice is appropriate in the “obvious” domain—an environment where cause and effect are apparent to anyone. If understanding cause and effect requires analysis and expertise then we should be using “good practice” instead, because there are likely to be exceptions and edge cases which mean no practice can always be best. Things become even more challenging when we move into a third domain where cause and effect are not at all clear, even to experts—examples here are the economy and human relationships.

Whether or not we choose to use the Cynefin framework we can see that what is claimed to be best practice it isn’t always. Under Cynefin it may be because we’re working in a domain that is not obvious. Even by intuition we can see that what is claimed to be “best practice” might often more realistically be described as “good practice” or even “a useful idea worth exploring”. Sometimes I fear that when someone says “best practice” it’s an unconscious way to short circuit objections. There is an easy route from “this is popular” to “I like it” to “I want us to do it”, and ending with “it will be more readily accepted if I call it best practice”.

If those are the dangers, how can we be more constructive?

I think it’s far more productive to bypass the talk of best practice and remind ourselves instead why we’re doing the thing. An example would be “we expect our managers to meet face to face with each of their team members at least once a fortnight…”. It would be easy to end that sentence with “…because it’s best practice”, but it would be more useful to say something like “…because it ensures they can respond earlier to any potential problems that people have”. This gives everyone more context about why the practice is being suggested and allows them to use their judgement in how to implement it—for example, where to have the meeting, whether it should be more or less frequent for certain team members or managers, the focus of the conversations, and so on.

Stating the reason also gives us the opportunity to talk about whether a supposed best practice really is ideal for this particular situation.

It does take effort to think about why we favour a certain practice and then articulate it clearly. But it does provide everyone with better understanding and potentially better outcomes.

Photo by David Hurt