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The dangers of best practice

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.

6 comments

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  1. Tom McMahon
    Tom McMahon 29 December 2015, 04:45 PM

    There is also signficant peer-reviewed literature regarding best-practice adoption and how it can hinder innovation and development of technology.I came across a paper (while studying for my MBA) by Maxine Robertson, Jacky Swan and Sue Newell called 'The role of networks in the diffusion of technological innovation' provides case-study evidence of how 'best-practice' is pushed by networks of suppliers.The networks of suppliers  and consultants analysed in the study are not really intent on promoting actual best practice but are more intent on promoting a standard which can be sold to managers and directors. the link is here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1467-6486.1996.tb00805.x/abstract and provides relevant information regarding best-practice  

  2. Daniel Jones
    Daniel Jones 21 December 2015, 02:40 PM

    Like leadership, "practice" is situational and if you just apply it without considering all the external and internal factors then you risk failure. A useful way of looking at practice is in terms of Emergent, Good and and Best practice, depending on the type of project or other work that you are undertaking.If the project is dealing with complexity then neither Good or Best Practice will be of use, unless you are lucky!  A solution will emerge as you experiment to find what works and along with this may come the development of Good Practice as we understand the complexity.On the other hand, if the work is simple and well understood, then Best Practice is possible and can be used; the risk is that circumstances change and what was simple becomes complex, or worse chaotic. At this point a user of Best Practice is in a very difficult position and most likely is doomed to fail.Since Projects are always different, they are by nature complicated and we need to apply good practice. A complicated project will have a number of possible ways to deliver a solution and no one approach may be significantly better than another.The Cynevin Framework offers some really helpful insights; there is a good Youtube video by way of introduction and the theory was published in the Harvard Business Review. After 30 years of project delivery I found this framework a very helpful way of viewing leadership, practice and solution finding.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N7oz366X0-8 

  3. Paul Naybour
    Paul Naybour 18 December 2015, 11:29 AM

    I could not agree with this post more. The problem is who is judging best practice and how dynamic is the update of best practice. Let’s do a thought experiment. Let’s say I invented a new way of working with suppliers to encourage early contractor involvement in a project and also maintain a level playing field for competition (not actually my idea). And let’s say I applied this with fantastic success to a few projects, and demonstrated that it was much better than the traditional approach. This could be my best practice. How long would this take to reflect in the published manuals? Certainly several years because my new approach would have to be adopted and tested by several project managers before it was adopted in one of the manuals. So inevitably we have a significant lag (of years) between my best practice published practices.I prefer the term accepted practice; by the time a new idea reached the manuals it has been well tested and accepted by the community. This does stifle innovation but it provides a framework of tried and tested approaches.

  4. Ann Pilkington
    Ann Pilkington 18 December 2015, 11:08 AM

    Mary McKinlay and I have delivered project management training together for folk working in PR and communication. Early on, she ticked me off (very nicely!) for using the term and she was right to do so.  You explain the rationale very well here Alastair.  As a trainer and lecturer, for me this links to the thirst for case studies which is something that makes me uneasy for the same reasons. Of course we can all learn a lot from what others have done and I find great case studies inspiring. However, the key is to remember that what works for one organisation may not work for another.   The other thing that Mary always reminds us is that every project is unique, no matter how much it may seem the same as one that has gone before.  So, for those working in project communication the most important skill is to be able to analyse the situation in order to develop communication strategies that will be right for the situation - not simply what worked well before. Thanks for prompting us all to think about this Alistair.

  5. Alistair Godbold
    Alistair Godbold 18 December 2015, 02:51 PM

    It was Mary that inspired me to write this as well.  Her clarity of thought and expression in project management helped me to think about it.  It was gently explained to me as well why best practice did not exist.

  6. Mike Wallace
    Mike Wallace 16 December 2015, 03:38 PM

    Alistair has hit the nail on the head here and clearly demonstrates the need for professionals who know how to apply good practice to each different situation (rather than those who simply try to mechanically apply a process).