Three reasons why your “best practice” very probably isn’t

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:

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 🙂

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20 thoughts on “Three reasons why your “best practice” very probably isn’t

  1. Doug Shaw says:

    Best practice feels a little, arrogant, and more than a little dull to me. What about just….practice? Sports people practice, practice, practice then deliver in a burst (think Chris Hoy doing a 1km track time trial), then practice, practice, practice again. He probably never hits best practice. I love practising things, or should I say making mistakes. Either way I’ve never hit best practice. Never delivered the very best.

    Strive on, practice makes…….perfect? No, practice makes better.

    Practice plus a little talent = exciting, useful and (insert your fave motivating word here)

  2. Indy says:

    To support the “change” meme: Over on Kevin’s blog, I posted a link to JS Baskin’s reaction to the latest BP crisis and the comms strategy adopted. What JSB doesn’t say explicitly (but I will) is that in human communication, best practice is automatically time-limited because as soon as it becomes widespread, the fatigue/cynicism sets in.

    For another example, see the issue of sports coaches/managers “losing their teams” – if you hear things said in the same way for too long, odds are you’ll begin to stop hearing what is said.

    I’ll post an “on the other hand” comment in a different box.

  3. Dan Gray says:

    Awesome links, KK, especially the white paper by Alf Rehn. Speaking as someone with both his size 15s firmly planted in the second of your 2 camps, I have to say the description is scarily accurate!

  4. Indy says:

    So – On The Other Hand…

    Is “Best Practice” just a strawman?

    In the work on Complex Adaptive Systems, there’s a division made between “rules” and “operational principles.” A communications example (on a recent topic) might be:

    “Rule” – Measure the reaction to your campaign by conducting a company-wider survey before and after and feed in the number changes to designing your next program.

    “Principle” – It usually helps to estimate the impacts of your campaign and take them into account before you start doing more activities.

    Best Practice that is constructed of rules is the problem – because it doesn’t have the affordances for different ways of doing things.

    A lot of the people who get defensive about “Best Practice” seem to me not to realise how much of it, out there in the wild, is “rule based.” I’d agree it doesn’t have to be… but it seems that it generally is… and that’s why I don’t think it’s a strawman to try to move away from Best Practice.

    I’d been thinking about this issue in light of the Unconference discussion too… the “professionalisation” model taken up by the comms reminds me a lot of the process for being a “Chartered Engineer.” The value of that is that it’s a well established process for spreading new ways of working, while ensuring that as far as possible nothing is advocated that means the bridge the C. Eng. builds will fall down.

    The other side of that is that you don’t go the C. Eng. best practice list to do something new… and that building bridges is very often a case of doing something very well understood…

  5. Though it’s looking like we’re all in radical agreement I’d like to add my two Canadian cents worth:

    1: “Best practice” encourages mindlessness. Not thinking and just doing ’cause. And you might get away with it as a couple of the comments above suggest, but maybe not.

    2: Innovation is the opposite. It comes from being very mindful. You need to really understand what you’re trying to accomplish in your own context and where you stand in relationship to that so you can design an approach [tools and tactics] to move from here to there. And, that’s where the innovation is possible. Finding the shortest route [read ‘best way”] given your organizations constraints and opportunities at any point in time. Knowing what’s currently best practice inside your organization or elsewhere might be an element that feeds into your design thinking [or it might not].

    Thanks Dan for sharing your reading list. Mine would include: Simplicity and Work 2.0 both by Bill Jensen. Path of Least Resistance and Creating both by Robert Fritz.

    And Kevin thanks for the links. Off to check them out.

    • Dan Gray says:

      Not sure I’d go so far as to say it encourages mindlessness, Debbie. What I would say, though, is it encourages convergent thinking – i.e. deductive generation of a single “best” answer to a set problem. You’ve still got to think and make choices, but the point is that making choices is all you’re doing, and that limits your options.

      Actually creating choices requires divergent thinking, and drawing upon ideas from across disciplines to reach a deeper understanding on what the problem is in the first place! And on that note, I can also highly recommend you pick up a copy of The Opposable Mind, by your fellow Canuck, Roger Martin at the Rotman School of Management. Some really great stuff in there about how integrative thinkers tend to take a much broader view of what is “salient”, and are thereby able to generate new approaches.

  6. Sean Trainor says:

    Like Dan, I recognise KK’s stereotypical campers with my tent firmly pitched in camp 2. I often peer over the security fencing at all the Winnebagos hooked up to fully-serviced pitches in camp 1, and I’ve noticed that they are predominantly occupied by clients. “Aye, there’s the rub”
    Not so long ago I had a client that insisted on “an innovative solution that was tried and tested” Bring on the IBM approach; not only did the client not get sacked, they got promoted!

    I love the way this conversation has drifted into the worlds of sport, design, engineering and six-sigma. I’ve experienced more applications of ‘best practice’ in these areas than the navel gazing that goes on in the worlds of comms associations and clubs. But I’ve been lucky enough to have worked in all these worlds and have rich sources to draw from.
    My best “engagement” case comes from the world of safety management and there were no comms campaign, branded collaterol, HR processes or surveys in sight.
    My best “innovation” case comes from the world of manufacturing and not 1 brainstorm was held.
    I must get on with that book.

  7. Well, I must admit I don’t quite get this. I must be getting out of touch, or maybe I just come from a different background, or maybe … I’ll leave the searching self-examination until later.

    The management construct that should be “Best Practice” includes establishing the systems for learning, growth and innovation. A fully established “Best Practice” system should be designed to capture the knowledge and experiences of your workforce. The term “Best Practice” is supposed to be aspirational, not descriptive.

    You seem to have just defined it in your own ways, probably based on your experiences of implementation. That would be pretty ordinary implementation. As communicators, and from what I gather employee/internally focused, I would hope that when you’ve worked in Best Practice organisations, that you have established innovation channels where new thoughts and ideas can be identified, and I hope you’ve established systems where those new ideas can be examined not only as a potentially better way, but also as a management development tool, helping managers analyse something outside their comfort zones (promoting inter-disciplinary management Dan).

    I don’t particularly like Best Practice myself, because it is too process focused and, as pointed out in your discussion, tends to limit the fields in which evolution will occur. It is usually poorly implemented because it is easier to manage and measure established processes than it is to develop new ones, so managers and operators become consumed by the day to day practice, and lose the bigger picture. My personal preference is for values based management systems, but then I’m not a CEO and it’s not about me. My role is to support management, perhaps introduce new approaches and try to persuade and influence a change of approach, but in the end to either do my job in the context of the corporate direction and style, or get the hell out of the organisation.

    But I have to say that as a management process, innovation by itself is usually lousy. If you’re only goal is to innovate, you’re going to have lousy sales, awful processes and not much in the way of product.

    I also think that there’s a bit too much in the way of digs at professional associations in this argument. Its beginning to look as though your biggest gripe about best practice is that some prof assocs have defined it in a way that stops you winning awards or getting speaking invites. Many of those regular speakers you refer to are innovative. For example, in the IABC context, I’ve never heard Shel Holtz speak without learning something new that provided a basis for me to innovate. I agree that greater diversity is needed, but I thought the digs in this post came across as digs for the sake of digging, and weren’t to the point of the discussion.

    Cheers, geoff

    • Indy says:


      I think I have a terminology problem here, you seem to be talking about “Best Practice” as a coherent management philosophy – but that’s not common terminology in the industries I work with/in. Maybe the system you’re thinking of has some alternative name I may be more familiar with? Or is there a source description for “Best Practice” as you describe it?

      • Damn, I knew I should have stayed out of this one. And thanks a lot Indy for hitting me right in the middle of my weak spot! I don’t know that much about it because I am more interested in values based management philosophies, so I tend to ignore the more process orientated approaches.

        I described it as a construct because it is neither a philosophy or theory. The notion of best practices was around in what have been described as the classical and neo-classical management periods, but the term itself is a little more obscure. My view is that it was developed as a marketing tool, initially external then internal, rather than as a specific title of a philosophy.

        The term is used in a number of other systems including continuous improvement and QA, as well as risk management.

        In practice, I couldn’t agree with you more, but in practice my experience has been that most management philosophies are reduced to what the individual CEO wants to reduce them to, and tend to be about getting the job done rather than creating a long term future.

        To other responders, I can only say that I didn’t say you were wrong, but said I didn’t get it and added a couple of opinions. I thought I should try to break through the scrum, not sit outside waiting for the easy pass! Sorry if what I heard wasn’t what you said, but that’s communications for you.

        Cheers geoff

  8. Sean Trainor says:

    “too much in the way of digs at professional associations in this agument”
    …I agree Geoff…maybe that subject should have a blog of it’s own?

    • Dan Gray says:

      I’m sorry you think so, guys. For my part, all I’ve done is to refer back to a few comments from other people on previous posts. @geoff – believe me, I couldn’t give a stuff about awards and speaker invites (never pursued ’em, never got ’em). All I care about is doing the best possible job for my client. Period.

  9. Kevin says:

    Hi Geoff, great comments as usual and of course there is a balance to be struck. The DNA of the CommScrum movement is indeed to err on the side of hyperbole. So yes, there is probably “too much” of just about everything when we scrum.

    That’s kind of the point.

    Nonetheless, I think these points are relevant. We all have a variety of motivations, aspirations, gripes, pet peeves, character flaws and blind spots. This is “social media.” It can be easy to forget the “social” part that requires the involvement of human beings.

    We don’t assume we are right, or have all the answers. We’re just hosting the party. Attendance and/or agreement is totally discretionary.

  10. I remember listening to one of the Kaizen guys from Honda giving a talk to a group of competitors about what they do and how they do it. During the “any questions” obligatory session at the end, a smugsomethingorother asked sarcastically “well thanks for that, now we know what you do” to which the speaker replied “I am happy for you to invest time copying where we have been while we have already moved on”. There weren’t many more questions after that………..

  11. Sean Trainor says:

    I read a case study about 3M being described as best practice by the Branding Brigade citing their innovative use of their logo on the back of every piece of abrasive cloth
    Wind forward 5 years and they were being criticised by the Lean Movement for (initially) not taking the logo off their supplies to Toyota when they pointed out this was waste.
    Lean Branding? now there’s a thought.

  12. kk says:

    Maybe an example would help.

    I’m working with an organisation going through major, painful, challenging change, with a diverse and dispersed workforce and massive cynicism. As part of the project, we’re pursuing a viral campaign on YouTube through a series of interactive select-your-own-adventure videos (i.e., you make a choice and depending on the choice you make you see a different video that presents a different choice). The internal campaign references the YouTube content via the mechanism of a competition (Tell us what happens when Joe does X in the YouTube video and win a prize).

    Clearly the content has to be relevant, not cheesy, authentic in order to deal with cynicsm, humorous and compelling to keep it engaging, all the while being aligned with Corporate Communication and brand messages since although it is an internal campaign it can be seen by external stakeholders.

    So actually, it will live or die by how well the creative works. I like that challenge!

    Of course there are other channels and approaches that tie in to this, but it’s an approach we are trying. So it entails risk. I am SO proud of my client for having the balls and confidence to do it, and their MD saying go for it as well.

    Is it a “best practice” approach? Not (yet). I stole the idea with pride from a great UK public information campaign about knife crime. And then applied it to a change communication challenge.

    OK so one could say it’s just a media selection decision, but I disagree. It’s tackling the blurring of internal-external communications and the concept of “captively owned” functional audiences head on. And it’s using a medium that resonates with the audience to deliver its message.

  13. Sean Trainor says:

    I borrowed the same idea with pride for a pitch some time ago but the client didn’t buy it because the scenarios were too difficult for them to think through and the filming budget was too scary. Shame.
    I hope it goes ewell. Still, I’m not convinced this is the same thing as reapplying best practice from another discipline, is it not just recycling a creative idea?

    • Maybe it is. But the audience shift is what interests me – that is where the channel application begins to challenge or at least lean in the direction of “best practice” I guess…

      We’ve been sweating over the scenarios but we’ve nailed it after a lot of work. I think…

  14. […] for purpose and failing to remotely deliver on their potential and promise. Echoes of our “best practice” debate apply here just as much as to employee […]

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