When "Best Practice" is Bad Practice

The term Best Practice has always made me nuts. In the past week, though, I am convinced the term is following me!

First there was this week’s live Twitter Chat, where consultants from around the world grappled with the extent to which inspiring vs. prescribing to clients is most effective. In that context, the words Best Practice came up often.

Then I received an email from a reporter, with questions about Best Practice for governance. And then, not 24 hours ago, I scanned the latest copy of the Blue Avocado newsletter, only to find an admonishment that we reconsider what we mean by Best Practice.

For the record, the term Best Practice doesn’t make me crazy because it is overused or even because it is less than honest, as noted in Blue Avocado.

The term makes me crazy because much of what is declared to be Best Practice is actually to blame for why the Community Benefit Sector has not significantly and overwhelmingly changed our communities!

“Best Practice” Issue #1: The Answers Are Outside Us
One issue that became clear in the Twitter chat this week is an issue I raised in The Pollyanna Principles – that organizations have much to build upon, and that when we use systems that build upon a groups’ own wisdom, they are more likely to own and then act upon the results.

Best Practice throws all that out the window. Best Practice assumes the answers have been predefined from outside the group, and that failure to adopt what the rest of the world is doing will be perceived as less than professional.

Best Practice suggests the group isn’t smart enough to come up with its own answers. Best Practice leads to seeing others (especially consultants and academics) as having those answers.

Encouraging a group to rely on Best Practice, then, is reinforcing for the group that they are not as smart as those other experts. Rather than empowering a group, reliance on Best Practice takes their power away.

In a world where boards so often feel like fish out of water, deferring to EDs out of their own sense of inadequacy, encouraging a board to focus on externally imposed Best Practice simply reinforces that sense of inadequacy. Use of Best Practice therefore creates weaker, less confident leaders, who do not own the results of their work, because that work was generated outside them – by experts providing externally developed Best Practice.

“Best Practice” Issue #2: Who Says It’s Best? And What is Best About It?
Blue Avocado points out that what is commonly accepted as Best Practice is more often than not simply common practice – what everyone else is doing. (Can’t you just hear your mother asking, “If everyone else was jumping off a cliff, would you?”)

Board gurus often cite all the Best Practice sources – BoardSource, Standards for Excellence, even the articles at our own Community-Driven Institute Library.

But what makes those sources “best?” Best at what? If, as an example, board effectiveness is measured by board participation and enthusiasm, or by an accountability-for-the-means checklist – but not by the extent to which that board is aggressively pursuing the organization’s vision and mission in the community – is that really “best?” Or have we replaced our vision for what is possible with a set of minimum standards and simply chosen to call those “best?”

“Best Practice” Issue #3: When “Best” is Actually Bad
That leads to the hardest issue to face: What happens when what is touted as Best Practice is actually harmful?

Best Practice in Governance that rewards accountability for the money (means) with zero accountability for community-driven results (ends).

Best Practice in Board Recruitment, that provides a matrix of pro bono roles to be filled (attorney, accountant, PR person, etc.), when in fact, recruiting board members for the purpose of receiving pro bono help is actually a direct cause of micromanagement.

Best Practice in fundraising (and in providing funding as a grantor) that teaches organizations to become more competitive / to sell themselves as “better than their competition” – while simultaneously bemoaning that those groups have trouble working cooperatively with the very organizations they have been instructed to “differentiate themselves against” (i.e. make themselves appear to be better than).

In just these 3 cases, adherence to Best Practice leads to and reinforces

These practices move far beyond simply being “not best.” These Best Practices have caused dramatic harm – within individual organizations, within the Community Benefit Sector as a whole, and within the communities we all care about.

What To Do Instead?
If we humans are more likely to feel ownership of work we create ourselves, the answer becomes clear: Have groups establish their own “Best Practice.”

For simplicity’s sake, let’s use the board recruitment example. By scrapping the Best Practice board recruitment matrix, we can facilitate the group’s wisdom instead, asking such questions as:

  • What are the qualities we want to be sure every board member has?
  • What are the qualities it would be nice if some had, but not everyone needs to have?
  • What are pro bono positions we wish the organization would attract? (Let’s be sure to recruit those separately as volunteers, rather than assuming we must add these folks to the board)
  • What are the characteristics we never want to see on our board, ever ever ever?

From the lists of answers to these and other questions, each group will own its recruitment criteria and from there its recruitment process. And the same method of asking and encouraging the group’s own wisdom could then apply to all the other issues for which groups seek outside expertise.

What This Means for Consultants and Other “Experts”
As consultants, we are used to being asked for our expertise. Everything about the way we do our work changes, however, when instead of assuming the answer is outside the group, we assume the answer is in the room, and that our job as the consultant is to guide the group to find its own answer.

If we see our role as inspiring our clients’ own wisdom, then the consultant will ask instead of telling. Instead of a magic bag of checklists and answers, the consultant will have a magic bag of probing questions.

Instead of enforcing external standards, the consultant will practice eliciting a group’s own standards.

The consultant will still have topic-specific knowledge to inject into the discussion where needed. But that topic-specific knowledge will be a perk, an incentive for the group to want to learn more, rather than the definitive word.

In the end, the approach you choose will come down to a question that is simultaneously simple and complex: How much do you trust your own judgment and ability? And how much do you trust the judgment and ability of your clients.

This post was originally posted at Creating the Future.

14 thoughts on “When "Best Practice" is Bad Practice”

  1. Hi Hildy – I rarely find myself disagreeing with you, but here’s one where I do.

    I’ve actually seen the quest for “best practices” turn whole organizations around, and powerfully move them forward. I’ve been part of a struggling youth mentoring organization that sought best practices for program development, and then rebuilt its program, incorporating and tweeking what it learned from others to create a new and better way to effectively serve. I’ve watched a civil rights organization’s board shift its perspective 25 years forward by seeking best practices from like-minded organizations. And, I’ve seen a breast center continue to struggle because it wouldn’t look outside itself to figure out better ways to serve.

    Any phrase can be used as a weapon to chill conversation and stifle creativity, and those same words used wisely can also inspire learning, collaboration, research, and innovation. The term ‘best practices” is not the problem. It’s those who wield any phrase without thought that have the power to cause the damage.

    Call it a “best practice,” an “effective practice,” a “generally accepted accounting principle,” or a “tip.” It doesn’t matter. These are all used to indicate advice, standards and counsel, and ways of operating that others have found helpful. And the obligation of the receiver is to take it and make it relevant and useful.

    I actually like your questions for the Board in the board recruitment example, but I don’t see why the best practices matrix needs to be scrapped. We have the ability to look inward and outward at the same time. Why not gather and research the “best practices” for board recruitment and them shape them with the questions that you ask? Why can’t groups establish “their own best practices” by incorporating the thoughts and perspectives of others, and perhaps directly borrowing them when they make sense?

    Likewise, your advice to consultants is binary. Why do consultants have to either assume the answer is outside the group or the answer is in the room? Reality is that the answer may be both outside the room and inside the room, and the consultant’s role is to both inspire our client’s to reach beyond what they already know AND to inspire their own wisdom. For instance, what if a board has recruited members based solely on a matrix, and as a result the folks who are your clients really *don’t* have all the answers?

    Consultants “who enforce external standards” are always acting inappropriately. This has nothing to do with “best practices.” And again, appropriate behavior doesn’t have to be binary, as you acknowledge. Consultants can still bring “best practices” to the table via topic-specific knowledge, and inspire the group to discard what’s irrelevant or not useful, borrow what is, and create what isn’t there.

    My question to consultants wouldn’t have to do with trust, it would instead be, “How do/can/will you use evolving “best practices” to inspire, motivate, and support those who come to your for support?” It can be done, especially when consultants realize that part of ensuring that they serve well is to stay abreast of the shifting “best practices” in their own field.

  2. Hi Hildy,
    My experience with this is a little different in that my consulting practice includes the financial services, philanthropy, and community benefit sectors. Laura Deaton’s point about using words or phrases as a weapon is a big part of the problem that I find with the term, best practices. In financial services it is often used by superiors to say,”don’t question me.” It’s also used by subordinates to shirk responsibility for their decisions. In that sense, it’s a dangerous term.

    As an action, adopting what are deemed best practices by a sector simply gets everyone to the starting line. It’s a leveling device. Perhaps you can overcome mediocrity, but you’ll very likely never excel. By adopting and efficiently implementing all of the best practices in your field you will probably be very good, but hardly unique, and certainly not innovative. Human beings are capable of original thought and are highly adaptable. I think we are better off using those capabilities.

  3. If taken literally, best practice indicates that the very best has been achieved and that there is no other way that it would be improved. I tend to think that best practice should be viewed in conjunction with the time & knowledge spectrum. It is regarded as best practice based on the person’s what-we-know-now factor. When more info and/or experience is gained later, one should try to improve on the best practice. Just because someone says something is a best practice, it doesn’t mean that it would be a best practice for someone else. Ppl should take any best practice with a grain of salt and see whether this would actually for them. Sometimes organizations don’t even have any kind of practice. Or may have poor practices. Achieving better practices (not best practices) may be their first step. There is always room for improvement later.

  4. Laura:
    As Dave and Katie note, words do indeed matter. I therefore disagree that it doesn’t matter whether we call it “Best” or “Effective” or, as Blue Avocado suggests, we be honest in saying, “Here’s one way of doing it that some others have found useful sometimes.”

    If it is best, that means something. If it is not best, but one of many options from which a group can choose, that is very very different.

    Can handing someone a solution help when they have questions / problems? Sure. Is it the most effective way to embed a culture and attitude of strength, so an organization has the systems in place to figure things out on their own next time? Can it help them reach for their highest potential (as Dave suggests)? Are there more effective ways of helping individuals and organizations reach their own potential?

    I am not suggesting organizations ignore what others have done / what has worked elsewhere / what others have learned. I am suggesting that there is a vast difference between providing them with an encouraging process for discovering that information on their own vs. handing them that information with the label “Best Practice” attached.

    Which begs the question: Is it really the best possible practice to encourage adoption of Best Practices? Is there something better / more effective? And if so, what is it that is better than the purported “best”?


  5. Hi, Hildy!

    I think this is really interesting. Business schools and consulting agencies often push us to explore best practices. To an extent, I think it’s a reflection of our collective laziness – no need to consider a vision of what we want and backtrack to how to get there; we can just copy someone else. Unfortunately, best practices fail to take into account differences in time, community and perhaps most importantly people! On the one hand, looking at best practices can spur ideas. On the other hand, this method tends to put restrictions on what we consider (whether consciously or subconsciously). I have to say, you have certainly inspired in me a desire to steer clear of best practice methodology and consider first possibility. Thanks!

  6. Hildy, I’m with you – the term Best Practices drives me nuts. I think it’s a semantic thing. The presumption that what others have done before is “best” implies that we cannot do better. It suggests that further innovation is not necessary or possible, and that’s just nonsense.

    Certainly, it is extremely useful to know what others have done that has worked well, and very (very!) important to learn from mistakes that others have made. As long as the world remains in such a mess, however, I just simply can’t buy into the idea that anyone has figured out the “best” way to do much of anything. Also, if we believe in change, and strive for change, then what is “best” today may not be what’s best tomorrow. And what’s best in one socio-cultural context may not be right at all in another context.

    Beyond semantics, there was an article today in the Boston Globe that cites 2 recent indepth studies which question whether microlending actually fights poverty or not. As a former microfinance practitioner in Africa, I have quietly believed for years that the mf industry at large is on the wrong track… My main argument has been that for the past decade plus, the “Best Practices” preached in microfinance have focused on the sustainability of institutions, not their clients. I shifted my own energies toward an emphasis on job creation long ago, and have become a huge fan of orgs like Kenya’s Equity Bank, who’ve dared to defy some “best practices” and now outperform most MFIs in the region.

    All in all, “best” is a dangerous term. Let’s hope, for the sake of the community benefit sector, that we can always strive to do better.

  7. Hi, Hildy – Thank you for your response; it definitely has me thinking and engaged! It also sounds like I misunderstood. What caused my response was my fear that you were recommending that we throw the baby out with the bathwater and just completely toss out the richness of data and experience that might currently be subsumed under the term “best practices.” From your last response, it’s clear that’s not your intention.

    I hope I didn’t convey a cavalier attitude about the use of words. Words do matter, as you’ve already shown by encouraging us to shift our language away from “nonprofit” and toward “community benefit.” I get it, and value it; I really do. And, I do understand your own reaction to the word “best” although I find that I struggle just as much with the term “better” that Christina Jordan suggested. Better practices or good practices or bad practices actually carry the same questions…”For who? Better than what?”

    Most of my work in the community benefit sector has focused on helping struggling organizations through transitions, and as Katie Tong mentioned, I’m often starting at ground zero with no current practices. Programs have halted and the board simply “isn’t” a board in any functional way. Encouraging the passionate die-hards that are frantically trying to rescue the sinking ship to look outward is usually not only imperative, but also a saving grace. To me, reaching for better still seems far less valuable and inspirational under those circumstances than reaching for best. Perhaps best practices is actually a phrase that can be useful under some circumstances, and harmful under others?

    Are we talking the need for a shared consulting lexicon that we believe will lead to more possibility and expanded futures for the organizations we serve? Before your initial post, it wouldn’t have been on the top of my list, yet I felt my own “it drives me nuts” when I read David Svet’s post and encountered the words “superiors” and “subordinates,” which are words that I wiped out of my leadership vocabulary long ago because I found them to be denigrating and yes, almost always harmful. Superior to whom? To what? Yuck.

    So I’ve come full circle. I actually do think more exploration into the language that we use to move the sector forward would be valuable, and could supplement the incredibly useful tools that you are already putting in the toolkits of both consultants and leaders. But language change still won’t be enough. Those words need to be lived and breathed by people who “get them” to really create change. Words, attitudes, and behavior will all need to shift to eliminate the consultants who wield best practices by “enforcing external standards.”

    Thanks again for your passion and your work. I always learn from each interaction with you.

  8. Process worship is a problem, and I say that even though you know how I am about e-myth type stuff.

    Big problems often stem from small problems. Small problems are often caused by oversight. Oversight is often fixed by whatever you want to cobble together and call “best practices”.

    Nobody likes a magic wand, magic pill or whatever. Everyone’s issues are unique, at least so they think.

    OK, Ill boil it down further: “We’ve always done it that way.”


    PS: What’s a marketing guy doing hanging out here? That cant be a best practice 🙂

  9. I am overwhelmed by the response this issue has raised, both here and in various listservs and other forums where I have asked the question as well. Clearly this is striking a nerve in folks – one that I, for one, simply assumed “Well it’s just me.” Obviously, as is often the case, when I think it’s “just me,” it’s not.

    I love Tammie’s words above – “collective laziness.” I also appreciate Christina’s concrete example in the microfinance world.

    Laura, thank you for your thoughtfulness about this issue. I think a lexicon is important (perhaps a topic for another #NPCons chat at Twitter?) but I think it goes beyond language. If, as Tammie suggests (and you know I encourage) we start at what success would look like and reverse engineer from there, language change will be one of many conditions we will want to have in place on the road to creating a different way of being as consultants.

    But that has to come first. If we are to truly be catalysts for community change, does the “best practice magic pill” Mark talks about above have a place? As we continue to build new, more effective, emerging and generative practice, how can we ensure those don’t just become the next ism against which we are rebelling as “best practice” 2 and 7 and 15 years from now?

    Those are among the conditions we have the opportunity to explore as we create what it means to be consultants who are catalysts for community change. It’s why we created this blog – and why I am so excited to explore this topic with you all!

    BTW, I find it interesting there has been virtually no defense of “best practice” as a tool or an approach or a term, anywhere I have raised this question. What does that mean?

  10. A variation on the push for “best practices” that seems to be surfacing more and more is the appeal to adopt “evidence-based” practices. What these appear to have in common is that with both kinds of pleas, the recommended solution arose in a particular CONTEXT. I think then that the burden for community experts and consultants is to know WHY a particular solution worked in one context and why it might NOT work in another. We need to educate our clients about different contexts and teach them how to think about the relative fit between proposed solutions and their own unique context.

    I do see some validity, for example, in approaching decision making in medicine from the standpoint of what has worked well in practice, as opposed to what my doctor learned in med school or what the last pharmaceutical salesperson she saw told her. One premise that makes this logic work in medicine is that the systems that comprise the human body and the processes that govern its functioning are fairly well understood. Clinical research is also some of the most highly rigorous and controlled research being done today.

    Even so, what I also count on my physician to know are the unique circumstances and medical history of her patients as UNIQUE individuals. If a patient has a special life circumstance, is contraindicated for a specific treatment, or suffers from dementia, there may well be good reason to deviate from “best practice.” Aristotle called this “practical wisdom” – the ability to apply universal principles to particular situations.

    Organizations and communities are far more varied than the functioning of the human body from one person to the next, I submit. The state of our knowledge about effective community leadership practices is also less empirical and more interpretive – and necessarily so, than double-blind controlled experiments.

    I resonate with Laura Deaton’s wish for a shared consulting lexicon and wonder what a vocabulary for talking about community and social contexts would look like. Also useful might be a library of “design patterns” – solution approaches that have worked in certain kinds of situations, and design principles – guidelines for intelligently fitting and adapting what has worked elsewhere to the unique context community leaders and their constituents live in.

    A final reason why I am wary of evidence-based “best practices” is that they skew the leadership challenge towards the merely rational. Medical science is wonderful, but I also want my doctor to care about me. Community leaders need to be educated and informed, but they must integrate intelligence with heart and soul and creativity and passion and caring. I have yet to read a best practice report where the effects of those variables were measured.

  11. As usual, you have great points to make here, Hildy. I’m a long-time lurker on the ARNOVA list and always read your comments. Would it be okay if I excerpted some of your original post in Blue Avocado with a link to here? Jan Masaoka

  12. In some respects, there is a dangerous misconception here that nonprofit boards are free to do whatever their collective hearts desire. This misses the fact that a nonprofit board has specific legal responsibilities. For instance, a nonprofit board might conclude that its work would be more effective if meetings were conducted by email, and the board might believe that unanimously and fervently. But that would not make it OK in a state that requires the board meetings be face-to-face.

    It seems to me that the consultant’s role has to be more than a mere facilitator to help a board find its own way. The consultant has to provide knowledge of what a board’s legal and fiduciary responsibilities and requirements are, both substantively and procedurally.

    Although they are common practices for many boards, things like fund raising and strategic planning are really side projects that boards may voluntarily take on, but they are not of the essence.

  13. Hi Hildy and All!

    [Dan, good to see you here! I followed your writing for some time a few years ago and had sort of “lost” you since.]

    I have worried for some time about how “Best Practice” can work to freeze change that is needed and worth while. It’s really true that what’s a great approach today, in one situation, can be old and outdated thinking tomorrow. I see this in particular in work involving the environment and animals.

    Establishing one approach as a best practice makes people see innovation as unnecessary, and even, sometimes, as a real threat and danger to be resisted with all of our might. That’s a bad scene for the group that has a different slant on the situation, even when their approach can be proven to work better from all angles. What happens is that funders don’t fund the new approach; other groups don’t inform the public about the “alternative.” People find confusion over what is really “best?” Who is the authority? How should a regular person distinguish what is labelled as best, as distinct from what works best in practice? It’s not clear, and needed changes become a field for severe burnout.


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