Dan Gray – CommScrum Riyadh
Kevin and I, in particular, have been engaging in some pretty serious rucking in recent comment threads on the subject of “best practice” and why – by definition – it isn’t. So we figured it was probably worthy of a post in its own right to tackle this thorny issue head-on.
Whilst it’s my turn to bat lead-off, I’m going to start by quoting the esteemed Mr.K, with one of his comments from the last CommScrum post, which gets right to the nub of the matter:
Where does “best practice” come from? Erm… innovation. It didn’t just fall off a tree.
Of course, that’s always been true. But it’s never been truer than now, for several reasons that deserve slightly closer scrutiny. Being a firm believer in the power of the rhetorical rule of three, I’m going to stick to what I see as the three “biggies”, and I’ll leave it to my fellow CommScrummagers, and to you, to add to them, embellish them or cut them down, as you see fit…
1) The pace of change
Quite simply, the shelf-life of any so-called best practice is shrinking as a function of the sheer pace of change. By the time it has become recognised as best practice by the masses, next practice is probably already half-way to superseding it. Today’s newspaper, as they say, is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip wrapper.
2) The degree of change
Interconnected with that is the degree of change, best described by reference to Clayten Christensen’s distinction between “sustaining” and “disruptive” innovation. Sustaining innovation refers, essentially, to the incremental improvement of existing mainstream approaches, whereas disruptive innovation is the kind of rule-busting stuff that defines new space.
Not to bang the tired drumhead of Design Thinking again, but one of the things giving that movement massive traction is the realisation that we’ve pretty much Six-Sigma’d everything to death, to the point where quality and efficiency are mere table-stakes. Increasingly, next practice – in communications, just as in any other strategic/creative discipline – is not going to be defined by building incrementally on what’s already there, but by seismic shifts in practice.
3) The sources of change
A third interconnected component (and the most important of all, as I see it) is where the inspiration for next practice is coming from. The very existence and popularity of this blog is testimony to the fact that that inspiration is increasingly dependent on an inter-disciplinary orientation, not an intra-disciplinary one.
Again, not to unduly rake over old ground, but comments about the “closed shop” of professional associations – both in terms of defining what communication actually is, and in restricting access to new and different perspectives on how to do it more effectively – indicate that, if you’re only looking inwards for best practice, you’re probably missing out on a lot of really great ideas.
For example: my most enjoyable and successful project ever – one that the client is still raving about over two years on – is an employer brand project I worked on together with Kevin. The critical ideas that drove our approach, and the insights that underpinned the proposition came from three main sources:
- Treacy & Wiersema’s “value disciplines”
- Charles Handy’s “gods of management” and
- Edward de Bono’s “Simplicity”
Indeed, when I reflect on the books and ideas that have most influenced my thinking and practice over the last few years – any one of Marty Neumeier’s brilliant whiteboard overviews, Tim Brown’s “Change by Design” or James Surowiecki’s “Wisdom of Crowds”, among others – one thing becomes very obvious:
You won’t find the words “communication” or “engagement” anywhere in their titles.
Kevin Keohane – CommScrum Bayswater
Sounding a bit too much like a mutual admiration society for my liking, but thanks just the same.
The way I see it, much of the traction for and against “best practice” and its packaging and deployment comes from one of two prevailing mindsets that we can perhaps track back to the evolving (and we need to revisit this at some stage) Typology of Communicators from an older post:
Camp 1: “No one ever got fired for hiring IBM.” Best practice is a safe, defensible refuge. I’d rather be 60% right than 100% out on a limb. If it comes from The Association and cost £499, it must be good. You’ll probably find stacks of business books with engagement and communication in their titles adorning the bookshelves, and membership cards and certificates from one or more professional associations in their wallets and on their walls. Conference attendance is similarly about “employee communication and ______ (insert latest buzzword)” with the usual suspect speakers who are on tour, again, instead of doing actual innovative work in the field. They tend to favour a certain discipline focus (journalism, human resources, marketing, IT, PR etc.)
Camp 2: “If I can download it from a site for £499 and plug it into an existing challenge, by definition its value is suspect.” I’ll have a look and then adapt, butcher, or discard as I see fit. You’ll probably find a lot of books without the word communication in the title on their bookshelves, as well as “past due” invoices from lapsed association memberships in their inbox. The last conference they attended was “OpenSoho” – where lots of digital people in the UK converged to discuss the latest trends and cool thinking in the digital world. Before that they were at a seminar on Sustainability presented by Interface Carpeting, Adnams etc. hosted by tomorrow’s company. They tend to argue with their clients/CEOs, who often think they are expanding the brief beyond “communications”. They have no loyalty to a discipline and are channel agnostic.
OK, I have a foot in both camps as do many of us. But innovation is about connecting two (or more) things in a way that weren’t connected before. “Best Practice” thinking resulted in mankind taking 4,000 years to put wheels on luggage.
But the point is, as Dan says, using “Best Practices” religiously results in zero progress and no new best practices. This posting from Knowledge@Wharton could never have come from the traditional communication camp, and yet these ideas are brilliant and inspiring – and all about communication – and if 2 or 3 of us try them out, hey they might be tomorrow’s “best practice.”
And there are some “best practices” that probably do stand up to interrogation and scrutiny. My point is they should be the starting point, not the end solution.
I also recently saw this, a great white paper on best practice vs innovation that is worth a read.
Mike Klein–Commscrum Magret de Canard
Agree with both of you, but I’ll go farther on a number of fronts:
1) Innovation: One of the best definitions of innovation that I’ve heard, so much I’ve forgotten it’s source, is that innovation occurs when successful ideas or concepts are combined from two different areas.
I know this from personal experience (having spent the last ten years in internal communication finding things I could apply from my previous ten years as a political consultant) and also from seeing innovations out in the world. It’s not about building a better mousetrap–its about a mousetrap-vacuum cleaner that takes housecleaning to a new level.
2) “Best Practice” vs. Next Practice: While I’ve previously sparred with those promoting “competence” as the key quality of the internal communicator, competence certainly has a place as a baseline. Execution of “best practice” also falls into the “competence” scope, with perhaps a little creativity connected to choosing which “best practice” to use. But working for clients or bosses who insist on using “best practice” all the time can be a brutal experience–never allowing the space to develop modifications or rethink assumptions or, from artistic standpoint, to allow one to own the solution.
3) Social and Networked communication: given that the social and network dimension of communication is only beginning to be understood and considered acceptable to work with in corporations and on business challenges, there’s damn little best practice out there, and much of that often focuses on specific technology (how to use twitter) vs. the underlying strategy and theory (analyzing how twitter accelerates network growth and the speed of communication within networks). In that case, reliance on best practice rather than original strategic thinking can lead to serious underperformance.
Lindsay Uittenbogaard – Commscrumming from The Hague
To echo the above, as Kevin says, Best Practice usually means proven, safe and defensible. Finding Best Practice asks “What have people done before that reduces our risk; what can we do to ensure we’re not just making it up?” And absolutely Dan, Best Practices age – and following the Best Practices of others can compromise innovation.
My brief tuppence here comes back to the requirement for unique communication approaches because each context to which communication is applied is absolutely unique. There is no ‘Best Practice communication’ (unless, as Mike says – you are talking about basic competence aspects, like common features of great webpages). Having an understanding of practices that have worked well in the past can only be advantageous to a new situation if they are viewed as a comparative guideline – a great start for new thinking.
It seems that we’re all on the same scrumming side here for a change 🙂