A Better Way of Thinking About Best Practices

I’m not a big fan of the term “best practices.” The basic concept behind a best practice is admirable: Learn what works well for others and adapt it for your organization. But when people start proposing all kinds of ideas and calling them best practices, my Spidey-Sense tingles.

When you hear the term “best practice” bandied about, one of two things may be happening: the best practice being described might not be a true best practice, or — even worse — the term might be used to deflect scrutiny of a half-baked idea. 

Business Babble

The proponents of many best practices are probably describing what should more accurately be called a generally accepted practice — or even just common sense. Like synergy and outside-the-box thinking, the term “best practice” has decayed into business nonsense.

If you’re looking at a process, tool, or method that has produced demonstrably superior results in your industry or profession, then you’ve probably got a true best practice. But doing something that’s expected in your industry? That’s just called catching up.

“Because I Said So”

People may call their idea a “best practice” because they haven’t done their homework. Researching an issue and designing an appropriate and tailored solution is hard, but reading a journal article and shouting “eureka” is easy. 

Calling something a best practice can be a way to deflect criticism. The words “best practice” denote authority and disinvite interrogation — just like when your mom tells you “because I said so.” Disaster can ensue when no one at the table thinks they have the power or responsibility to question things.

Anything presented as a best practice should be examined and evaluated and, if need be, tossed out the window. Your circumstances, challenges, and corporate structure might be completely different from those at organizations where the best practices have worked.

Web Design Best Practices

Remember my throwaway Spider-Man reference in the first paragraph? Let’s go back to it for fun — and to illustrate my points.

People who call everything best practices might be inclined to say something like this: “Locking up radioactive and genetically engineered spiders during field trips is a best practice.” But that’s not really a best practice, is it? It’s literally the bare minimum you can do to protect your guests, safeguard your investments, reduce legal liability, and minimize Green Goblin attacks. 

What about the people who say they have discovered the best practices for storing radioactive and genetically engineered spiders? Push them for more information. What they propose might not actually apply to your situation. Their solution might be a best practice for zoo displays, with little practical application for advanced research facilities. Ask Dr. Otto Octavius what happens when you rush into something too quickly. (Spoiler: You become a psychotic supervillain with robot tentacles.)

The Bottom Line on Best Practices

As I said at the outset, best practices — true best practices — are a wonderful idea. We should never turn down an opportunity to improve our organizations by learning from others. Just be aware that the term “best practices” has become a cliché, and “it’s a best practice” is, by itself, not a good justification for copying someone else’s work.

Instead of thinking about best practices, put some thought into leading practices. Best practices lead people to believe there’s only one way to an optimal outcome — after all, the word “best” is a superlative. Leading practices don’t presume there’s a single solution to improve efficiency and effectiveness, and they require constant innovation and reevaluation.