Good, better … best?

A while ago, I promised Mary Abraham a summary of my thoughts on “best practice”, which grew into quite a long draft, and then WordPress and I conspired to lose it. Rather than try to re-create it, I have started again. Undoubtedly, the lost version was much better.

In my comment on Mary’s blog, I mentioned that I have tried to avoid using the phrase “best practice”. I have identified three contexts in which my unease about the term arises. These can be summarised as compliance, comparison and complacency.


Last week I visited another firm to share our thinking on a project that we are (separately) engaged in. One of the people on the other side of the table was their Head of Best Practice. I found this job title intriguing, as her main role was to ensure that the firm complied with its regulatory obligations. It is fair to say that mere compliance was not her aim in performing that role — she was thinking imaginatively about how their lawyers could work more effectively as well. However, in this organisation (and possibly many others) the term “best practice” is equated with compliance with some external standards.

In my mind, “compliance” suggests doing something because you have to, even if you think that it is not necessarily the best thing to do for the business. Sometimes it means doing the minimum necessary to avoid the disapproval of a regulator. That doesn’t sound like the best practice possible.


Sometimes the appeal to best practice is a veiled request to emulate other businesses. As Matt Elliott puts it, this stifles innovation:

I’ve been seeing a lot of the Best Practices Guy lately. If you’ve been in the work world long enough, you’re probably familiar with this person: he or she is the one at any and every meeting whose only real contribution to the discussion is to harp on the need to look at “best practices.” Before we can do anything, Best Practices Guy argues, we need to determine what everyone else is doing.

And then, presumably, we’ll just copy them. Because that’s how profits are made.

In the interests of balance, I should point out that Dennis McDonald has issued a riposte:

It’s hard to argue with that. Simply adopting how someone else does something — without thinking long and hard about similarities and differences — would be stupid.

Still, there may be instances where adopting another organization’s best practices might make good sense. There may also be situations where doing so actually stimulates innovation. The trick is to be able to understand how the “best practice” relates to your own organization’s unique needs.

On the whole, my experience is that very few people who look to emulate someone else’s best practice are actually doing the analysis that Dennis advocates.


Interestingly, Matt Elliott suggests that the Best Practice Guy is fearful:

The problem with the type of person I’m describing is that he or she is often motivated almost entirely by fear. It’s not so much research they crave, but safety. If we just do what someone else has done (and succeeded with) we thus have no risk of failure.

Dave Snowden confirms that this safety is misguided in a short note referring to Six Sigma: “Systems that eliminate failure,  eliminate innovation.”

I think the real problem with using best practice to create comfort is that it is always backward-looking. In my comment on Mary’s blog, I referred to a post by Derek Wenmoth about the use of “Next Practice” as an alternative.

At worst, the best-practice approach leads to “doing things right rather than doing the right things. As cited in the presentation; Best Practice asks “What is working?”, while Next Practice asks “What could work – more powerfully?”

Rather than focusing on what has worked for a small number of others in the past to create a universal recipe for action, next practice (as I understand it) focuses on what might be possible in the future, drawing on the widest possible range of stimuli, and requiring a high degree of imaginative thought in applying those stimuli to current problems. As the Innovation Unit puts it in the context of the UK educational system:

Best Practice looks at and promotes leading educational activity for the benefit of the education system as it currently exists. Next Practice works with outstanding practitioners and other interested groups to try to take us beyond the current system into new territory, both in terms of school-based educational activity and in terms of the systems needed to nurture and develop such activity.

That sounds much more interesting to me than the safe best practice.

Finally, a word or two from Ovid (Ex Ponto, II 2 31-32):

Tuta petant alii: fortuna miserrima tuta est;
nam timor euentu deterioris abest.

(Let others seek what is safe: safe is the worst of fortune; for the fear of any worse event is taken away.)

By trying to avoiding the worse events we are driven to create things that are better. A complacent feeling of safety cannot help us do that.

3 thoughts on “Good, better … best?”

  1. Mark –

    This was definitely worth the wait! In reading your post, I found myself wondering if we’ve been fooling ourselves all along when we’ve identified as “best practices” requirements that really are no more than minimum operating standards. Appreciative Inquiry tends to lead us toward Next Practice, which can be far more challenging (and more rewarding) than those minimum standards.

    – Mary

  2. Great post Mark – interesting to see how these ideas are permeating cyberspace :-) I echo Mary’s sentiments – and particularly endorse the practice of appreciative inquiry as a means of achieving the “next practice” outcomes.

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