Best practices are dead. Long live better practices.

by | Leadership, Planning & Strategy, Teams

I used to be in love with the idea that there is a best way to do something. Perhaps you love that idea too?

I’ll be honest, I find deep comfort in the concept of best — the best deal, the right answer, the perfect fit, the best choice.

Exhibit A: Brandi Olson and The Great Dishwasher Spiral of 2021.

When my dishwasher broke in 2021, I knew I had my work cut out for me. I began searching consumer reports, Google reviews, and even hot takes from Reddit. And I started compiling all of my research on a dedicated “new dishwasher” spreadsheet.

My deep research strategy was great, in theory. But this was a busy time for me. Work was hectic, the kids were doing all of their schooling online, pandemic style. I didn’t have the time to do enough research to be sure that I was choosing the very best dishwasher available.

You can guess what happened… 

Weeks, then months passed without a decision, with my husband and I handwashing dishes for a busy family of five for hours every single day.

The dishwasher problem lasted longer and became bigger than it ever needed to be.

In fact, the saga only ended after a workshop I was leading for a group of product managers. One click into the presentation, I showed a slide with the word best crossed out.

The irony was not lost on me. We’d been spending too much of our limited free time for the past few months on an additional household chore because I hadn’t had time to find the best dishwasher for my family.

That same evening, my husband and I went to Home Depot with a budget in mind and an agreement: we’d spend one hour in the store and purchase the best good enough dishwasher they had in stock in our price range.

I have never loved an appliance more.

Once I redefined best to be a working dishwasher in my house instead of the best dishwasher on the market that I hadn’t discovered yet, I was released from analysis paralysis and on to using my time more effectively at the end of every day.

The concept of best is a comforting one.

The idea that best practices exist makes us feel better in a world full of uncertainty. We get lured into believing that if we could find the best practices, everything else will fall into place and we’ll weather whatever storms may come our way.

That’s why a swift Google search will offer up a plethora of articles, podcasts, and YouTube videos sharing best practices for everything from leadership development to talent retention. It’s why you’ll always be able to find a consultant or coach who will share their own version of best practices — for an eye-watering sum of money, of course.

But here’s the truth:

Whether you’re shopping for a dishwasher or leading an organization, there are no universal best practices.

In my experience, when leaders search for the elusive best practices, their organizations are often taken far afield from the one thing they actually want: effective progress on important outcomes.

Here are three reasons why:

  1. Searching for the best practices wastes time and resources.

The desire for best practices will send you on a never-ending quest for a thing that doesn’t exist. Along the way, you’ll waste precious time and resources that could have been spent learning, experimenting, and finding actual better ways of getting work done.

Best practices are a threatening myth that keeps people in a constant state of analysis, always doubting whether their best practices really are the best.

  1. Context matters.

In the words of Michael Quinn Patton in this insightful article that first challenged my own understanding of why best practices are harmful, there can’t be a best practice because there the phrase itself implies that “is that there is a single best way to do something. And if that were true, it would mean that context doesn’t matter.

But context does matter.”

What’s best for one organization will never be exactly best for another. The pursuit of best practices makes you more likely to follow formulas that were created for someone else, rather than finding real-life solutions for your organization. 

Our work is simply never that clean and tidy; effective outcomes are based on effective ways of working, while effective ways of working are based in a place of reality. And the reality is that, while the people, circumstances, problems, or goals involved may be similar to those of another organization, they aren’t identical.

Context always matters.

  1. The idea of best practices implies there is a ceiling to what is possible.

Because the idea of best practices implies there is a ceiling to what is possible.

If all your organization cares about is best, you may find yourself in self-congratulatory complacency once you identify a seeming best practice or you achieve best-in-market temporarily.

That is actually a low bar to set if you actually care about leading your field. If best is all you want out of your organization, then you’ll reach a point where you may start to think your work is done. You’ll stop getting curious. You’ll overlook the opportunities to innovate. You’ll never know what kind of outcomes are actually possible.

Here’s the thing: while best practices might not exist, definitively bad practices do.

I’m not for a second saying that everyone has to start from scratch, discovering fire and reinventing the wheel for themselves. We can and should learn from the experience and research of others. We should not tolerate bad practices and ineffective ways of working. Because while we don’t need to artificially cap the ceiling on what’s possible, we do need to hold ourselves to standards of quality and humanness. There are bad ways to work. Don’t learn about those the hard way. 

To be clear, there is an abundance to learn from others about how to do better. You should pay attention to what other organizations are finding to be effective. Get curious and understand what problems they are trying to solve. Learn what enabled the outcomes for that particular group of people. Pay attention to the patterns and the differences. Compare those insights to your own experiences, take action, and learn about your own context. 

You can and should be relentlessly committed to working towards higher performance. You just need to be abundantly clear about what outcome you are after. 

The pursuit of best practices won’t get you there. But there is one thing that absolutely will.

A commitment to finding better practices.

When it comes to discovering effective ways of working for your organization, context is key. There are no checklists or master plans. And you should be wary of anyone that is waving those around. There are always starting points, principles, and patterns. But discovering how to use those will take time, experimentation, and a willingness to learn and embrace new ways of working.

What I can do is give you four solid guidelines that will help you find your own, context-specific, better practices, for whatever outcomes you are pursuing.

  1. Pay attention to what you do now.

Whenever you find yourself googling for a best practice, pause. Take some time to get clear on what’s not working for you right now. Talk with your team about the questions you have that you hope to answer by uncovering best practices. Imagine what will be different in the future if you are able to find a better practice. Write that down and use it to learn from what you do next.

If you don’t take the time to fully understand the problem you are trying to solve and the particular people that you work with and serve, then you will have no idea if the best practices that worked for others will actually lead you to a better outcome. 

  1. Learn from others.

Look for places facing similar challenges, and for people who are solving similar problems. Google can be your friend at this point. So can case studies, insights from colleagues, research, or even those hot takes on Reddit. 

Learn from them while remaining conscious of the similarities and differences between your situations, your teams, and your organizations. If you choose to adopt a practice that has been used elsewhere, push yourself to also adopt a timeline that you’ll use to evaluate, learn, and adapt that practice into something better. Then share that better practice that you found through your learning with others.

  1. Agree to pursue adaptive and evolutionary change.

Look for the simplest, smallest, and easiest place to make a change as a first step.

Take one step forward, learn from what happens when you do so, improve upon it, and then take another step.

Evolutionary change allows you to take full advantage of one of our greatest assets as humans: our ability to learn and adapt.

Iterative changes allow us to learn quickly about how to improve. And learning is the only way to uncover the better practice that is actually going to work better than whatever it was that you were doing before.

  1. Encourage acts of leadership at all levels.

This is by far the most powerful principle that will equip you to find better practices.

If you cultivate leadership in every single person on your team, then everyone is empowered to find better practices. No longer is it your responsibility to always have the best practice figured out for everyone else. 

Author and ecosystem thinker, Margaret Wheatley, put it clearly:

“I believe that the capacity that any organization needs is for leadership to appear anywhere it is needed, when it is needed.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Letting go of the best way to do something is the only way you’ll find the most effective way to actually do it — and that is what matters more than anything else. Don’t be fooled by the siren call of a best practice.

Far more than embarking on an endless quest for best practices, unapologetically pursue the discovery of better practices. Because better will always be better than best.

If you found this helpful, you’ll love my new book, Real Flow: Break the Burnout Cycle and Unlock High Performance in the New World of Work.

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