Why the use of best practice can be dangerous and misleading

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.

5 Comments

  1. Posted December 13, 2009 at 12:05 am | Permalink

    Thoughtful post Noah. Dave Snowden’s work also reminds us that best practice has applicability in areas where the problem domain is simple, where cause & effect can be observed and confirmed. Deductive reasoning works well in this domain: the theory is known and well proven. Good practices work in the complicated domain, more inductive in nature where observation is required first and foremost. And I believe the emergent practices required to handle the complex domain are possibly more abductive in nature — the domain of a hunch, a gut feeling, one which then gets tested against either inductive or deductive methods over time. Indeed, much of the “design thinking” literature (Tim Brown from IDEO, Roger Martin from U of Toronto) favour’s CS Peirce’s notion of abductive reasoning for increasingly complex environments.

  2. Posted December 13, 2009 at 7:42 am | Permalink

    Hi Gordon, thanks for your thoughts. Your are of course correct; there are many domains (and time scales) where a deterministic approach to cause and effect works well. Factory lines, McDonald’s queues, etc., everything which tends to go in the “Simple” domain of the Cynefin framework.

    I should have been more clear that this post was directed at those kinds of problems which are more interesting and important these days; the complex and chaotic.

    My experience is that organisations don’t hire consultants to help them in simple situations near as often as they do to help them get through complex and chaotic ones. Plus I was feeling a bit cranky from a week of dealing with “best practice” advocates!

    Your point about abduction and design is well taken. As a trained architect and practising urban designer, I completely agree. I’ll be cooking up another post here soon drawing from the design theory literature which should address this.

    The thing about design, which differentiates it from traditional deductive science, is that it uses experimental answers to define the question, not the other way around. Scientists try to rigourously control the question and then seek a single answer, where designers understand the nature of the question by offering a million partially formed answers (hunches) and testing them against the problem. Juicy stuff to think about!

  3. Posted March 17, 2010 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

    Hi Noah, i saw a video where you were presenting: Adapting the Cynefin Framework to Encompass Systemic Change, do you have any journal or some site where i can find something about that?

    thanks!

  4. Posted March 18, 2010 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Hi Meliton,

    Do you mean more info on Snowden’s Cynefin Framework or on the Adaptive Change Cycle by Gunderson & Holling?

    Best reference for Cynefin is from the original Harvard Business Review paper by Dave Snowden and Mary Boone. The PDF is online free, here:

    A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making
    http://www.mpiweb.org/CMS/uploadedFiles/Article%20for%20Marketing%20-%20Mary%20Boone.pdf

    The best place to learn more about resilience, panarchy and the adaptive change cycle is Lance Gunderson and Buzz Holling’s excellent book, “Panarchy” You can find a decent summary of panarchy and adaptive change theory on the Resilience Alliance website, here:

    Panarchy: Understanding transformations in Human and Natural Systems
    http://www.resalliance.org/593.php

    Finally, a very nice application of resilience theory and adaptive change to organisations is in David. K Hurst’s book, “Crisis & Renewal: Meeting the challenge of organizational change

    Hope this helps and thanks for your comment.

  5. Posted January 22, 2011 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    Great post, Noah – I’d love to hear your thoughts on how this relates to urban planning and design. Obviously our common Space Syntax background is an example of a theory-driven approach ( BTW it would be nice for a little chapeau bas in the direction of Bill Hillier) but your suggestion that actions should be local seems like only part of the right answer. Sometimes we need create, amend, or even up-end, whole systems eg rapidly build new urban settlements, change attitudes to urban transportation. So, how do we use theory to do big things quickly? Tim

3 Trackbacks

  1. […] will result from willpower (read design) alone, without the need for “muscular effort”. Noah Raford recently referred to belief in “best practices” as akin to sympathetic magic: […]

  2. […] Lately the notion of “abductive reasoning” has been cropping up in a few conversations I’ve seen around knowledge management and governance.  Credit seems to go to Dave Snowden for introducing the idea to the KM community (in this post), with credit to Max Boisot for what sounds like a lovely and productive dinner.  Gordon Ross reminded me of it in a comment to my last post on best practice. […]

  3. By agile42 | Agile Inspires Betterness on February 3, 2012 at 7:04 pm

    […] with busier people, instead of better solutions. We found out the hard way that in a complex domain, best practices are not appropriate […]

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