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Why “Best Practice” Is a Fallacy (At Best)

Stephen Billing, October 9, 2009

"Best practice" ignores the most important factor – the people who are working with the practice or model.

Many managers have fallen for the attractive prospect of "best practice." And many consultants claim to be able to bring best practice to your organisation. What is usually meant by this term is that they bring models or processes they’ve used or developed in the past, which they can implement with new clients.

There is certainly value in the experience consultants have had in other organisations – it can bring a new perspective to what is going on in your organisation.

The idea of best practice goes further than this – it implies that the same outcomes are possible in your organisation using the standardised best practice or models adopted in other successful companies.

In an interesting post "On Models and Scaling Up," Chris Mowles makes the point that the effectiveness of any model is due in part to the quality of the model and in part to the people working together with it, and so you can’t really separate out the contextual from the generalisable. This is the problem with ‘n-step’ approaches to change – the claim is that by following an 8 step or a U turn model, you will successfully implement change.

It is significant that the people working together with the model are just as much a part of the effectiveness as the model itself. In fact I think the people involved are much more important, and most managers are aware of this too, which is why they know that picking the right team is so important.

And yet best practice and its forebear benchmarking both divert attention from the people and the context, focusing entirely on the disembodied prescription or model, as though it can be implemented anywhere and get the same successful result.

Note that the process of naming something as "this" simultaneously names everything else as "that." So if I call something a circle, then I am also calling everything outside that circle "not circle." So by naming "circle" I have actually created two categories, ("circle" and "not circle") even though I am only focusing attention on one category – the one I have named. The other category becomes almost invisible in this process. So if in talking about "best practice" we are making the "people working together with the practice" almost invisible.

The emphasis is, in fact, on the least important factor – the model or the best practice itself. Concentrating on "best practice" risks leading to a selective interpretation of social facts – an interpretation seen only in terms of the "best practice." According to Axel Honneth, this can significantly reduce your attentiveness to meaningful circumstances in a given situation.

Instead of looking at best practice, focus your attention on the particularities of your situation, trying to understand all the factors at work, not just those prescribed in your model or best practice. Reflect on how your own participation is affecting, and is affected by, the way these factors are playing out in your organisation. That way you can help to make sure your attention is on what really matters so much more than a best practice or model – how you and others are interacting with each other and influencing each other in the process of getting the work done.

Photography by Ruby Cumming



  1. Where is the magic in “best practice”?…

    Last week, as I was facilitating a workshop with a great group of people in Germany, the topic of “best practice” arose. I challenged the idea that the transfer of so-called best practice between organizations was a credible way of……

    Trackback by informal coalitions — October 9, 2009 @ 10:00 pm

  2. Good topic. In my experience as an advisor to vendors and customers about business technology solutions, I have seen best practices be of great value. The trick is to treat them as a starting point, rather than as a final destination. Best practices can provide helpful examples of what has worked for others in the past and could potentially work for now or in the future in a similar situation. Blindly following what has worked in the past is not a good idea but ignoring what has worked in the past is also not a good strategy. This is true even through different people and organizations are involved. A smart team or organization seeks out best practices not to copy them verbatim but rather to see what others have done that could help guide development of its own practices.
    Mark Levitt
    Technology Analyst and Business Strategist

    Comment by Mark Levitt — October 10, 2009 @ 3:46 am

  3. Same thing in comic form!

    Its like the ancient Beauty vs Truth question. Both are important. Ignoring either will cause unacceptable results.

    Comment by James Collie — October 14, 2009 @ 1:20 am

  4. There are several factors that prevent a practice to transfer from one unit/organization to another. In short let me refer you to the work by Prof. Szulansky on Sticky Knowledge

    Comment by Mike — October 15, 2009 @ 11:48 pm

  5. Bravo!

    Been railing against BP for 15 years. We embrace, apply ‘Next Practices.’ They inform emergence. See:

    We like Theory U and the TALC too.


    Comment by John Maloney — October 19, 2009 @ 10:33 am

  6. [...] Billing in his blog recently added weight to what David has to say. He comments that best practice” ignores the [...]

    Pingback by Gurteen Knowledge-Letter: Issue 112 – October 2009 « – Oxford News — October 25, 2009 @ 5:53 am

  7. Hi Stephen,
    I’m sorry to be late-ish in commenting, but I was really struck by the usefulness of your action recommendation at the end of this post. It reminds me of an analysis of an alternative approach to ‘uncertainty’, where instead of invoking abstract principles and models, managers are pushed/encouraged/forced to focus on the specifics of each situation and their role in gathering the set of resources from their network to address that specific situation. Really intriguing: “Bullsih on Uncertainty” by Michel and Wortham.

    Comment by CV Harquail — October 28, 2009 @ 2:11 am

  8. A harder problem is defining ‘best’. Best according to whose values?

    E.g. in public consultations should we promote practices that are better for the consultees, or for the consulters? Is neatly formulated organised knowledge the goal, or higher levels of democratic participation?

    Comment by Dave Newman — November 1, 2009 @ 1:34 pm

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