Just a while ago I was meeting with my colleague and a new acquaintance that we’ll be working with and it was a lively and interesting conversation. At one point Laurie told us a story about how she had taken some time to look at the work she had been doing over the past couple of years and reflecting on what she really had been doing. She is very successful at what she does and was quite surprised to discover from her reflections that what she really had been doing did not match up very well with what you were supposed to be doing in order to be successful.
Hmmm… this was a dilemma but at least a nice one to have.
This post is not about what Laurie was actually doing to be successful or even about how she might deal with this dilemma. It’s about best practices and some of the most problematic aspects of this whole concept.
If we look at Laurie’s story you could surmise that at some point in time someone, somewhere wrote up the best practices that were supposed to make someone successful in the particular role that Laurie has. You can also probably predict that someone, somewhere, is just waiting to hear Laurie’s story, get the details and write up the next and newest set of best practices. And if we continue the story, someone (likely a whole lot of someone’s) is just waiting to get hold of these best practices so they can be just as successful as Laurie.
There are a whole lot of problems attached to this story and to best practices. Here are a few:
- Why don’t we consider the fact that Laurie was surprised to discover what she was really doing? This surprise would indicate that Laurie had no real prior plan for the specifics of what she was doing; she was more or less making it up as she went along, all the while informed by her experiences from the past, her intentions for the future and the interactions which emerged every single day. Her surprise would indicate she certainly was not applying a set of best practices.
- Why don’t we consider the context in which Laurie was doing what she was doing rather than focusing on the content of what she did? Best practices are so often laden with ‘do this’ and ‘do that’ actions. Little consideration is given to the actual context in which those actions occur. The reason context is ignored is if you don’t, you no longer have a best practice, you just have an activity relative to a specific situation. Its replication cannot guarantee success and that’s a big problem with best practices.
- Why do we so often consider a story like Laurie’s to be an illustration of something unique, a different way of acting and being in the world? I would say that her story and her actions are unique but her experience and process of being in her world and how she responds to it is common to us all. We work extremely hard to believe that things like the application of best practices are actually the way things work. It doesn’t take too long at all to find stories similar to Laurie’s in each one of us and they are never about the systematic application of planned activities.
Best practices fit nicely into our desire to believe we can create a predictable future by planning it out and then implementing that plan. They do not fit well into our actual experience of being in our organizations. The desire for predictability and all the baggage that this creates still seems to outweigh an acceptance of our actual experience.
We seem to have a significant capacity to resist accepting what we experience every single day. The search for and application of best practices will suck up tremendous resources in the next year and our experience indicates most of those resources will be wasted. Yet we will do it anyway. It is puzzling as to why this might be.
I think there are many and complex reasons for this belief in a predictable future and it would be good to hear the perspectives of others on this. Some reasons I think might be relevant include:
- An aversion to accountability. If we are applying a tool or model or listening to someone who says we can create a future by doing ‘A’ then when it doesn’t work out we can walk away from any accountability.
- The fear that if our behavior does not create a predictable future, our behavior in the present is meaningless.
- A fear that if we cannot create a predictable future that anything could happen and there is a good chance that it will be bad or at least not what we want.
- A belief that doing the right thing will create a good result.
I wonder what it might take to cast off this perspective of predictability and accept our day-to-day experiences. Perhaps we all just need to tell our own stories to each other time and time again until we see them as real.
Would that be a best practice?