Best Practices: Part Two

For reasons that can’t be explained by logic, common sense, or empiricism, we still hear references to best practices and read articles about them with disarming frequency. That frequency is disarming because it reflects stasis — a kind of settling for inactivity or unimaginativeness, rather than a relentless search for active improvement or creative betterment.

EDITOR’S NOTE: SEE PART ONE BELOW  ⤵︎

Best Practices: Part One

Perhaps the point is more effectively made if we liken best practices to paradigms — and pull the concept out of a business context and put it into a scientific one.

In his 1961 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn wrote this, which, one could argue, introduced paradigm, the term that became a buzzword, into the vernacular:

Paradigms gain their status because they are more successful than their competitors in solving a few problems that the group of practitioners has recognized as acute.

In that one sentence, we find a precursor to the notion of best practices; that is, we recognize that one paradigm or set of paradigms may be adopted to solve one particular problem or one particular set of problems. But the shortcoming in that notion is revealed in its verb tense, which happens to be the present perfect tense; although, it refers to the past.

This present perfect tense indicates an action has been completed or is in a state of having ended but not at any definite time in the past. Has recognized. That tells us the success of the paradigm has been perceived and accepted in hindsight. Accordingly and similarly, we perceive a set of activities to be a best practice only in retrospect.

But there’s an alternative. Later in the book, Kuhn writes this, indicating that — rather than looking to the past to derive practices in the present — we might look to the future; that is, we can choose to pursue, rather than to make do:

If we can learn to substitute evolution-from-what-we-do-know for evolution-toward-what-we-wish-to-know, a number of vexing problems may vanish in the process.

To translate Kuhn’s notion back from a scientific context into our business one, if we substitute what we’re doing for what we want, need, or aspire to be doing, best practices will have their own obsolescence built-in. The good news is we’ll always be improving, and one of the vexing problems of business jargon will vanish. The bad news is we’ll no longer be able to tout best practices as a good thing.

If we do tout them, we’ll simply be advertising the complacency for which we’ve settled.

Mark O'Brien
Mark O'Brienhttps://obriencg.com/
I’m a business owner. My company — O’Brien Communications Group (OCG) — is a B2B brand-management and marketing-communication firm that helps companies position their brands effectively and persuasively in industries as diverse as: Insurance, Financial Services, Senior Living, Manufacturing, Construction, and Nonprofit. We do our work so well that seven of the companies (brands) we’ve represented have been acquired by other companies. OCG is different because our business model is different. We don’t bill by the hour or the project. We don’t bill by time or materials. We don’t mark anything up. We don’t take media commissions. We pass through every expense incurred on behalf of our clients at net. We scope the work, price the work, put beginning and end dates on our engagements, and charge flat, consistent fees every month for the terms of the engagements. I’m also a writer by calling and an Irish storyteller by nature. In addition to writing posts for my company’s blog, I’m a frequent publisher on LinkedIn and Medium. And I’ve published three books for children, numerous short stories, and other works, all of which are available on Amazon under my full name, Mark Nelson O’Brien.
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Garry Turner
Garry Turner

This is brilliant Mark, just brilliant!

“If we can learn to substitute evolution-from-what-we-do-know for evolution-toward-what-we-wish-to-know, a number of vexing problems may vanish in the process.” – You helped me put into words my internal challenge with ‘evidenced-based decision making.”

I would appreciate your thoughts on my internally challenge around the evidence to validate (post experimentation, iteration or new idea) which I fully support and feel is more humane and exploratory vs evidence to justify (prove, ROI, after 6 months of doing X you may get a promotion etc) upfront which for me is based on fear and power.

I may be way off the mark, but this internal conflict has been going on for some time and whilst I cannot fully articulate it, your wonderful writing is clarifying, in apr,t my thinking – thank you.

Darlene Corbett
Darlene Corbett

Hi Mark,

As I said in my post to Part One, I agree with you about being future-oriented. We must continue to look at what is ahead rather than wallow to what has become. The past is done? As I have said many times, it serves only two purposes: Savoring those delicious memories and what we have learned. Thank you for this!💖

Anonymous
Anonymous

You are singing my song, Mark! I have similar issues with “benchmarking” which healthcare spends overwhelming dollars for consulting and subscriptions, time and talent on collecting data, and zero time on actually trying to understand the context. Have you read Edwin Friedman’s “A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the age of the quick fix?” If not, you might find it fascinating.

Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson

Well written and well said, Mark. Without context, there’s nothing. “Benchmarking” is another corporate fad that eats up costs of subscriptions, time and talent to collect data, and nothing on actually trying to understand the context, where the real key is located. If you haven’t read Edwin Friedman’s “A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the age of the quick fix,” you might want to pick it up.

The “anonymous” comment is me too – couldn’t figure out how to log in and thought it went away.

Aldo Delli Paoli
Aldo Delli Paoli

There is no doubt that the step from “best practices” to resistance expressed by maintaining the status quo is short.
So the road is a slow but constant and unstoppable improvement that does not place itself in a position of rupture with the past, but feeds on the past to improve the present and the future.

Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.

Mark, this is the nugget I’m taking with me today: “…if we substitute what we’re doing for what we want, need, or aspire to be doing, best practices will have their own obsolescence built-in. The good news is we’ll always be improving, and one of the vexing problems of business jargon will vanish. The bad news is we’ll no longer be able to tout best practices as a good thing.” It’s so true… we get so complacent on doing things the way we’ve always done them.

Maybe they’ve worked in the past, but today may be a different day with new challenges, different circumstances. Maybe we stick with them because they are within the comfort zone. It’s what we know but maybe not what we want.

I just watched a TED Talk this weekend about the importance of conducting a pre-mortem. We often conduct post-mortems to try to dissect why something didn’t work. I found myself contemplating the thought process involved in a pre-mortem. “What do I want, need, or aspire to be and how do I visualize myself getting that?”
This piece succinctly captures why that is so important. Thank you!

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