Best Practice is your Worst Nightmare

Photo © rh2010/

Want to learn from the best? Make sure you don’t repeat their mistakes? Save time and money, collect the glory? Of course. That’s what Best Practices has been about – for ages. And for a long time it worked. Now it doesn’t – for obvious reasons. Why are we still using it?

Simply put, best practice means extrapolating someone else’s history to be your future. Is that what you want? I didn’t think so.

Put like that, it’s nonsensical. Still, most of the world, and the technical world in particular, rely on and refer to best practices all the time. It’s even stated in their strategy – IT strategy, business strategy etc. “We rely on Best Practices to …” And sure, it used to work – 20 or more years ago. When things were moving at a much slower pace. When things – products, services, projects, professions, technology, tools, knowledge  – still lasted for a long time – like 10 or more years.

These days, an eternity is like 5 years and forever is like 3, so the old ways obviously cannot work. Quite the opposite. They are in many cases dangerous. We’re using yesterday’s solutions and mindset to cure today’s problems and prepare for a future still at least partly unknown.

So I’m repeating the question: Why are best practices still good business with a huge following – even in many fast moving digital diciplines? The answer I most frequently get, is “best practices is the best we’ve got”. It’s not. We have to be smarter. Of course we can do a lot better than that. More precisely – we HAVE to do a lot better than that, and common sense is a good start. 

Common sense tells us a thing or two about the future. Such as the importance of knowing (and accepting) what we don’t know, and using that knowledge. More bluntly – stop pretending. If we accept that 3 years is beyond what anyone can predict, we cannot reasonably plan 3+ years ahead, can we? So what do we do?

Here’s the good news: We can still learn from others. Instead of best practices, which is about yesterday, look at what successful companies are doing today. For example – even big (sometimes old) companies have scaled down big projects, split them into small, manageable pieces with clear short term goals and new management regimes which focus on continuous changes and adjustments instead of traditional (and rigorous) change-order regimes.

As TechTarget wrote a while back (IT training programs stall amid search for best practices) :

Without a standard set of best practices to refer to for IT training programs, or any industry consensus on the best general approach to training, large enterprises have begun to trail smaller, more nimble counterparts in the efficiency of their software releases. 

The quote is about training, but it could be just about anything – in tech and in other disciplines, even finance, M&A and how we build organizations. The latter was in focus when MIT Sloan Management Review wrote about the subject in 2018 (Why Best Practices Often Fall Short):

Finally, it is important to keep in mind that even the best of best practices has a limited shelf life. The more popular a practice becomes, the less likely it is that adopting it will enable you to outperform your competitors.

Thus the strong message in the heading. Forget about best practices, look for updated knowledge and fresh experience from situations and challenges that are relevant today. It may look and feel like a delay, but consider it an acceleration lane – a safe and efficient way to synchronize with reality. Which in turn opens up opportunities we wouldn’t even see from the old best-practices-regime.

Leaving best practices behind doesn’t mean going alone or alway testing uncharted waters. It means changing company, hanging out with the ones in front instead of the ones in the back. Easy choice, isn’t it?

See also
Invisible disruptions are changing your life

Leave a Reply