The dangers of best practice

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Best practice is much talked about; what is it, which one is best and how can I use it to be as successful as others that work in this way.

Best practice can take many forms; methods, standards and exemplar ways of working taken from other projects and organisations. Methods and standards may be sponsored by government; such as MSP, PRINCE and the IUK Routemap or by professional bodies such as APM and IPMA. Best practice can also be used to describe the whole structure and operation of successful projects such as such as London 2012 and Crossrail, often enshrined in lessons learned papers or websites.  In general, best practice describes techniques and ways of working used, and in some cases endorsed, by an organisation with a good reputation and industry standing in order to help others be as successful.

Applying best practice improves and accelerates an organisation’s development, making their projects successful and contributing to a world in which all projects succeed. This is a collaborative way of improving projects throughout the industry, enabling organisations to build on the experience of others, in place of making mistakes and learning for themselves. 

There are other reasons why people want to use so called best practice. A key reason is that organisations want to demonstrate to their clients and stakeholders that they are as good as the best, to give them confidence in the organisation’s ability to deliver. And in some context applying best practice may be seen as a defence against later criticism if things don’t progress as planned.

However, the clue in the title, best practice can be dangerous and as Mary McKinlay says, there is no such thing! What others do is right for their context but may not translate into yours. At its best it is used to learn and develop, at its worst it is used verbatim, assuming it will make them as good as the best. This can lead to a number of issues:

  • it does discourages people to think for themselves
  • it implies that there is a limit to how good you can be by being best, not better
  • it is used without understanding the question you are trying to answer
  • these ways of working and standards may be their square peg answer to your round hole question.

Planning and delivering projects is all about people making judgements. Replicating what others do discourages people from fully understanding their original context, it makes people lazy and prevents the real problems being solved by implementing solutions to symptoms. I have seen many organisations and departments try to implement what they think of as best practice, copying what others do and then wondering why they do not see an improvement, and in some cases why things are worse. What many do not account for is that skilled and experienced practitioners use these techniques and work in these ways. If those implementing the best practice are not appropriately skilled or lack the right experience to draw on, they will not be able to re-create the success enjoyed by others. I have followed recipes many times, only for my creations to look nothing like the picture in the book and sometimes taste even worse!

Good practice, rather than best practice, is valuable. It helps us develop and be more successful. It has to be used with open eyes, adapted for the context in which it is applied and implemented by skilled and experienced practitioners who understand the why as well as the what. To do this the problem being solved must be fully understood as well as the context in which it sits. Formal lessons learned papers and logs have a place, but the key is for people to talk to one another within and across organisations and sectors to understand context and approach. This understanding and skilled application will help us look critically at the ways others work and make robust judgements to adapt their methods to our situation, or use them to provide inspiration and ideas.

Who knows, yours could be the next organisation that people hold up as best good practice.

Alistair Godbold

Posted by Alistair Godbold on 15th Dec 2015

About the Author

I am a Senior Consultant with the Nichols Group and a Programme Manager with over 30 years' experience delivering projects and programmes. These have ranged from large multi-disciplinary high integrity safety related systems in regulated environments, building and relocation, through organisation wide business change and IT projects. I have also advised companies on improving their project control and delivery effectiveness, setting up Programme Management Offices, project control systems and processes with the accompanying governance, skills and behaviours.

I have conducted a number of project and organisational reviews, designed and led a group providing assurance for a portfolio of over £14bn. I have led the development of individual Project Management capability, competency and organisational maturity and worked on projects and reviews in the UK, Australia and in Brazil. I have worked in a wide range of industries including; aviation, rail, nuclear and mining. I have a BSc(Hons) in computer science, and MBA in project management, I am a Honorary Fellow and Fellow of the APM, the Institute of Engineering and Technology and the Royal Society of Arts Manufacturing and Commerce. I am also an RPP and a CEng.

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