Best practices are a ridiculous way of learning about the world because their rote application is similar to sympathetic magic. It’s like building a model of something, building a doll that has a likeness of something else, and hoping that the effects will transfer.
Reproducing similar types of interventions in a different contexts is dangerous and naive unless you have an understanding of what the context was, how the intervention interacted with it, and why the effect occurred.
The notion that one can directly apply interventions to reproduce outcome phenomena without an understanding of the underlying mechanism is ignorant unless you’re dealing with a deterministic physical or chemical system. Most of the interactions that matter in our lives aren’t deterministic however (some of the really important ones aren’t even probabilistic), so it’s time we stopped behaving like they were. To be effective we need to start to moving away from “best practice” models and towards what Dave Snowden calls “theory driven practice”.
The “T word”
A lot of my experience in corporate and government consulting is that there is an anti-intellectual relationship to true understanding. Most big organisations, be they private or public, have a very uncomfortable relationship to theory.
This is why people want practice; best practice. “Just show me something that works.” Unfortunately our social and organisational lives take place in domains that are complex, dynamic and interactive. Simply reproducing something that works in one place and re-applying it somewhere else can be a naive and dangerous thing to do.
Even in the same organisation, if one were to try to re-apply an intervention that worked once at at a different time, it would produce different results because the component parts and the relationships which constitute it have changed. Furthermore, the relationship between the organisation and its environment will have changed as well. So the imposition of the intervention is not only likely to fail, but likely to produce entirely unpredictable and surprising results.
This is probably one reason why so many change efforts fail in large organisation. Many “change efforts” are lead by the big consulting firms, who take “best practice” examples from a few textbook cases or from other clients and then repurpose them from one company to another, ad infinitum, at a healthy profit.
This would work fine if organisations were like machines – machines for which we had the blueprints – and if changing one lever would produce the same effect every time you pulled it.
The reality is that our most important interactions take place in social and ecological systems for which we don’t have blueprints. And not only do we not have blueprints, even if we did, they would be changing over time and space and the very act of our looking at them would alter them.
This is bad news for the anti-intellectuals (and the football captain consultants). It means that if you really want to produce an outcome effect, you have to understand the underlying mechanisms and systems of which it is a part. In other words, you have to understand the theory.
Theory-driven practice, in practice, equals awareness?
Once one engages with the concept of theory-driven practice, however – as soon as one understands that you have to actually understand the underlying dynamics and interacitons to understand why actions produce certain outcomes – the situation becomes even more sticky.
Why? Because we live in one giant complex adaptive system, with many different interacting actors with different levels of awareness, connectedness and influence, pursuing different agendas at different times, resulting in a constantly evolving landscape of interaction and causality.
Taken literally, this means that sometimes there actually isn’t a direct relationship between cause and effect in many of the cases that matter most to us. Most big events in the social world are mutually causal, which means that they cannot be predicted. The landscape is constantly evolving, which means they cannot be repeated, and we labour under structurally uncertain, which means we cannot predict the effects of our actions. This is what the term co-evolution really means.
All this means that our governments, companies and organisations really aren’t like big machines, and that the theory required to interact with them effectively requires a fundamental re-assessment of the very notion of concepts such as “best practice”. The only responsible thing that one can do when operating in this domain is to test, sense, interpret, theorise, test, sense, interpret, theorise, etc., all the while producing highly specific and temporally contingent local results (again, hat tip to Snowden and the sensemaking guys for this terminology).
From a consulting or management standpoint, this means that every single case is unique, every single case is different, and the process of interaction, exploration and co-creation has to be undertaken at every step, with every client and at every stage, in a unique and bespoke manner.
That is why it is important to take a theory-driven approach, drawing from the evidence and theories of complex adaptive systems, to any social or organisational change effort. That is why it is important to use tools which recognise structural uncertainty and works best in dynamic environments. And that is why best practices can be dangerous and deceptive, and why theory-driven practice is the only responsible philosophy which a manager should follow.