Best practice is just the worst

In our industry, many people are keen to suggest we all adopt “Best Practice” and it seems to be almost universally accepted as a good thing. Poppycock! In many circumstances you will be doing much more harm than good. 

Think about what it means for a moment. The  Dictionary says:

Best practice – (mass noun) Commercial or professional procedures that are accepted or prescribed as being correct or the most effective. 

So in other words, when we say “We would like to help you adopt best practice,” what we are really saying is, “You’re doing it all wrong, this is in fact the only correct way of doing it, you should do it like I do.” 

How does that make the receiver of that message feel? How much job satisfaction do they have when someone trots in an tells them to stop doing things the way they’re doing them, and do it your way it instead? How invested, engaged and empowered are they likely they feel? 

I’m a coach, both professionally as an agile coach, and as an amateur as a Rugby Coach. Common wisdom would say that to be a coach, I need to be an expert in the thing I am coaching and have a desire to pass on that knowledge to others. However, experience and hard earned learning tells me instead that to be an effective coach I need expertise in coaching, and a working knowledge of the thing I am coaching. 


Let’s take a a look at a real example from rugby. The scrum is a method for restarting the game after minor infringements and is often perceived to be “dark arts”. It is in fact just a little bit complicated, so needs some expertise.  The pack of forwards from each team form up in 3 rows per team, and all bind together. The 2 forward packs then push each other and contest possession of the ball which is rolled in by the scrum-half.

What is best practice for forming a scrum? 

We’ve been scrumming for years, and as a former player and coach, I know the Best Practice for forming a scrum to give my team the best chance of winning the ball. That is to say, I actually know all 3 best practices for forming a scrum… 

Best Practice 1) the “One knee on the floor” Method

Best Practice 2) the “Two knees on the floor” Method

Best Practice 3) the “Stand up” Method

So which is the best Best Practice?

None of them are. They are all actually good practices.

As a rugby coach, when we’re going through scrummaging technique I don’t push any of my players, I let them work it out for themselves. I encourage them to try all 3 methods and see which way works for them, and let them see the results of the techniques in terms of getting into a good scrummaging position quickly. 

The complicated domain is the domain of expertise rather than best practice. Almost all complicated work has multiple options of competing good practices – should I code my software in Java, C#.Net, Ruby, Python or something else? Should I use Behaviour Driven Development or User Story Mapping to analyse and plan? Should I run my project using PMI or Prince II? Should I use a greenhouse or a poly-tunnel to grow my tomatoes? Should I subscribe to Spotify, Amazon Music or Apple Music? 

There is little point wasting time arguing about which is best, they are all probably too close to call, so instead, take the time to work out and run experiments to determine which of the good practices work best here, with our given constraints, skill-sets and expertise. 

What’s the point?

If you try to impose a way of working on a group of people, then you will demotivate them. When it comes to complicated work where expertise is valued, there are usually multiple good practices, and by talking about them with the experts, we can move our dialogue away from Master / Apprentice instruction towards Peer / Peer dialogue. From one person imposing their will on another and causing resentment and resistance to change, to a conversation and suddenly we have the opportunity for everyone to start collaborating and learning.

Is there still a place for best practice?

Yes, but only in the “Obvious Domain”. What’s that? Borrowing from the Cynefin complexity sense making framework, the obvious domain is “an ordered system where the relationship between cause and effect exists, is predictable in advance and is self evident or obvious to any reasonable person.” You can read much more about Cynefin online, including this Harvard Business Review article

In short, if you know exactly what you need to do to achieve your goals, and it is well understood and can not possibly change, then use best practice. If it is more complicated pick one of the good practices. If it is more complex still, use emergent practices.


Next time you want to enforce a best practice, how about you try having a conversation about experimenting with good practices instead. See if it works better for you, and the people you’re talking to.