Wednesday, 7 April 2010

5 rules to reinvent "best practice"

There is a lot of pushback in the KM world about the term "best practice". In the discussion groups, we hear people saying "we don't believe in best practice". Respected KM gurus say that "best practice harms effectiveness". David Snowden, in his complexity model, believes that best practice will apply only to simple repeatable non-complex problems.

Certainly I have seen the concept of best practice used negatively and destructively in organisations. I have seen people defend outmoded and inefficient ways of working by saying "we are following best practice". However I feel that as a concept, best practice can still be very useful, with the following caveats

1. Best is temporary. There may be a current "best way" to do something, but like "world champion" or "world record", it's not going to stay the best for long.

2. Best is therefore a starting point. We are always looking to improve on best, but without knowing the temporary best, we don't know what we have to beat. Like a world record, best is there to be beaten - its a minimum accepted threshold.

3. Best is contextual. There may be no universal "best way" to do something. The best way to deal with emergency decompression of a Jumbo Jet may not be the best way to deal with emergency decompression of a Harrier jump jet. However within that context, there is still a "best".

4. In a new context, you cannot blindly apply "best" from another context. However you can learn from other "bests" - no context is ever totally alien, and there may be approaches that can inform and advise, that you can build upon
5. Best practice does not have to be written down. It can live there in the community cloud of tacit knowledge. Usain Bolts "best way to run a sprint" is probably not even conscious - its in his muscle memory. However if it can be written down - in a wiki, or a document, or a manual - so much the better, so long as it is immediately updated every time its superseded and improved. The risk with documenting a best practice, is that it goes out of date, and there is no point in documenting without allowing for continual update. The risk with not documenting a best practice, is that people can't find it, can't refer to it, and so make up their own practice which is frequently far from best. The answer is to record and continually update, eg through a wiki, or through a constantly reviewed and updated reference (for example, army doctrine)

If you apply these 5 caveats, then there is little or no risk from the concept of best practice, and instead it can be part of the engine that drives continual improvement.

After all, the concept of best practice is simply the following thought process

"Here's a problem. Has anyone seen anything like this before? What's the best way they've found to deal with things like this? How can I build on/improve on that to tackle my problem? Hmm - that worked, I'd better let others know what I did".


Allan Crawford said...


Nice post.

I'm fascinated by the use of checklists as a way of codifying a current Best...or perhaps Good...practice. Pilots have been doing it for years. Surgery teams are now starting to apply them with great success to help reduce post operative complications and mortality. The book by Atul Gawande, The Check List Manifesto, has some examples of how checklists is being applied to help share "best practices" in operating rooms around the world. I think that if you look at his work on Checklists you will see that it embodies many of your five points.

For more on this I've just blogged on the topic at


Nick Milton said...

Thanks Allan

I have also blogged on Gwande's checklists - see here

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