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Complexity and Knowledge Management Navigators…

Is it time to forget Best Practice?

I am always looking for books or ideas that challenge my way of thinking. A recent read got me reflecting on a popular argument around the idea of ‘Best Practice’ – I’ve touched on this before, but some of the discussion from Tim Harford’s book ‘Adapt’ gave me reason to pause and revisit my previous blogs…what follows is not necessarily from the book itself, but is, in part, inspired by a good read.

The need for best practice will vary according to the knowledge intensity of the organisation’s outputs; think Coca Cola’s production facilities versus their R+D function. One is based on standardisation and minimal deviation from the norm (based on complicated, replicable processes) and the other is immersed in complexity, ambiguity and experimental approaches. The first, you may argue, is prime territory for ‘Best Practice’ the latter, less so. My argument: perhaps it is actually time to eradicate the term, ‘Best Practice’ from the business lexicon.

We are always looking for better products or services; quicker, more efficient ways (cost optimisation) of doing things (Lean/Six Sigma?).  The premise being that Best Practice attempts to limit variety in the environment to a standard way of doing something – eliminating waste and error from the process…doesn’t error bring about evolution and waste; and do you mean the time and space needed to effectively collaborate (I am, of course, being inflammatory)?  MBA graduates indoctrinated in the ways of Taylorism preach the mantra of efficiency, order, structure and the one best way. How about a spanner in the works: What about human and/or local challenges that require variation in the process?

The problem is that an organisation’s ability to evolve (to meet the needs of its environment survival of the fittest), informed by its adaptive capacity, itself informed by its dynamic capability, emerges from need/demand (again, from interaction with the complexity of the knowledge economy), requires an engagement with variety.  This leads to issues of complexity and the idea of Complex Adaptive Systems (follow the links for previous discussions in this area).  However, Best Practice appears to run contrary to the evolutionary process.  It seems to emerge from a natural human instinct to bring structure and order to our world; to replicate what we know already works. This can be traced back to philosophy and the idea of Homo Faber: Man the creator and man the wise, where man looks to control the environment; referred to by Henri Bergson (The Creative Evolution, 1907), where he stated that intelligence emerges through man’s  “faculty to create artificial objects, in particular tools to make tools, and to indefinitely variate its makings” –  the idea links to previous blogs where I have discussed the idea of the person human, and, as such, organisations, being model-dependent. What I would also suggest is that the more ambiguous, the more abstract the environment, the harder we seem to work to model, organise and structure that environment.  We look for patterns, fill in the gaps and build models that allow us to ‘recognise’ this world we are sensing.  Best Practice appears to respond to this primal need to bring order, but, even when looking at standardised processes, are we fooling ourselves – much in the same way that our brain fools us into ignoring our own blind spots in our senses; where the optic nerve exits the eye.  The problem is that if you subscribe to the idea of the organisation as a Complex Adaptive System then you also subscribe to two key dimensions: The human dimension and the local dimension. Why is this a potential issue?  I’ll give you an example:  In every organisation I have ever worked with, where there is a focus on Standard Operating Procedures, I have found local ‘work arounds’ – local procedures that work around the standard procedures set out by a centralised management function – these procedures often exist under the radar and, when they surface, are suppressed by the centralised approach to management…you wouldn’t believe the number of organisations that ignore feedback from their own people; people who are distanced from the strength of the centre and add unwanted variety to the organisation’s ‘one voice’.

Moving on…We need to understand that variety is critical to progress or evolution.  Some of the best inventions, products and services, have spawned variations on the theme – some work, some don’t, but the environment (in this case, customers) reward the strongest and condemn the weakest to the business scrap heap.  Take Apple’s iPad, how many variations are we now seeing on the market; how many are successful; how many fail (evolution and survival of the fittest) how many are moving the market forward; how is this forcing Apple to respond? Is this any different with highly standardised processes?  We are always looking for financial gain or competitive advantage through the optimisation of standardised processes; does a Best Practice approach really encourage or satisfy this need?  We need to encourage experimentation bound by the needs of the organisation, people and the local context.  We can give examples of existing practice, but perhaps that is where we should stop. Perhaps the answer is to respond to the need to evolve existing products/services/processes by allowing what exists to evolve, not replicated.  Peter Palchinsky suggested there to be three principles for engaging with complex environments and the resulting demand for an interface with variety:

  1. Seek new ideas and try new things (Variation)
  2. Scale failure so that it is survivable
  3. Feedback and learn from mistakes (Selection)

We need to accept that Best Practice methods rarely, if ever, allow for the variety needed to fuel the navigation of complex environments.  We can be bold and dare to deviate from the norm, or we can tread the beaten path and follow others into obscurity.

8 comments on “Is it time to forget Best Practice?

  1. beto do valle (@betodovalleTF)
    December 19, 2011

    Iinteresting post! Agree about the limitations of best practices.

    But most organizations have to seek some level of “performance”, “excellence”, due to be competitive. That’s when BPs are an useful tool. (Particularly, I prefer to talk about “good practices”, what liberates everybody to think that everything can be improved.)

    In other words, as any other tool, BPs R useful for some purposes, and not for others.
    Maybe we should think about how to combine and balance various practices, getting to rely on performance (based on good practices), for instance AND seek for innovation (counting on other practices that open space for the identification of opportunities, generation of ideas, experimentation and taking risks).

    What do you think?

    • David Griffiths
      December 19, 2011

      Good to hear from you and it seems that we are saying the same thing here.

      I agree with what you are saying about existing ‘good practice’ and I would love to see a total shift from BP to GP. My concern lies with an over reliance on ‘best practice’, where there is an attempt to impose a process, revoking the local voice from the decision-making process, and, in doing so, limiting the variety needed to evolve…my concern is for organisations that believe BP to be a portable process that is applicable across divisions/locations – I had this conversation recently with a MN oil Co. in the Middle East and they just didn’t see the problem with ‘imposing’ BP, regardless of conflicting local feedback.

      • beto do valle (@betodovalleTF)
        December 19, 2011


        Accepting that may exist good practices to be shared (and improved) may be healthy, helping to accelerate learning qnd contributing to leverage performance. Denying that some “critical mass” can be colletively buit atound “good practices” probably means losing opportunities of collaborative learning. But building performance around “portable best practices” is suicide.

        The point is: maybe we should try to combine collaborative learning (explicited in practices or other) with flexible innovation mechanisms, tapping on distributed knowledge, ideas and experimentations.

        Nice to talk to you!

  2. An interesting post and comments. I agree with the ‘good prtactice’ thread. I need to further explore the link with complex adaptive systems.

  3. Rick Ladd
    December 28, 2011

    Recognizing that innovation requires the interface with variety Palchinsky suggests, and accepting that words and their usage are important in defining how we approach our problems, one simple method of dealing with this dilemma is to use the comparative rather than the superlative to describe methodologies that are useful. Perhaps it’s somewhat simplistic, but the use of the superlative “best” implies there is no value to be found in looking for other “lesser” practices. Either the word “good” or (my preference) “better” leaves room for improvement or development.

    Having spent many years in an organization that insisted on applying “Standard Work” to virtually everything the company did, even in the face of a crying need to improve and innovate, many of my former colleagues and I were constantly running into difficulty trying to please our corporate overlords on two competing levels: The need to produce efficiently (and, even more important, effectively) and the need to develop and codify the “Standard Work” we used to do so. It created a great deal of cognitive dissonance in just about every aspect of the business. As far as I know, it still does – a year and half after I retired. I can’t even begin to quantify how much waste it created. There is no irony-deficiency in this kind of organizational tomfoolery, IMO.

    • David Griffiths
      December 28, 2011

      Hi Rick…interesting points and thank you for sharing – D

  4. Pingback: Is it time to forget Best Practice? | ITIL ITSM |

  5. Pingback: The nature of complexity? | Theknowledgecore's Blog

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