Best Practice Follower? Or Method Lemming?

The phrase “Best Practice” has been part of our lexicon for at least the past 20+ years now. It is used to describe everything from how we run IT operations, to how we hire, and fire, to how to best treat patients with critical illness, to how we run our minor sports leagues.

The phrase has become ubiquitous. But are there really and truly any “best” practices that will apply in all contexts for every organization?

Practice in Context

Scott Ambler, who is well known in the Agile space, challenges the assumptions that there can be a recommended practice that is best in all cases. Instead, he offers an alternative view, “contextual practice” in which the notion of what is “best” will vary with the context.

The concept of best practice, when first introduced into our lexicon was meant to capture what supposedly achieved some sort of defined results on a consistent basis for someone in some context. And therein lies its seeming simplicity, and also its lack of direct applicability elsewhere – “someone in some context”.

All of our contexts are as different we are.

Scrum talks about “ceremonies” which is somewhat the same thing as practices – except that the ceremonies are pretty high level, pretty simple, and it’s easy to see how you meet their spirit and intent in how you apply them without being quite so doctrinaire, as “best practice” pushers generally are. Though I recently saw a tweet to the effect “We are Agile. Except when it comes to our processes“. I’ll leave you to ponder that one…

Agile in a general sense is as much about behaviors as it is anything else. It’s when we try to do Agile rather than exhibit agility that we find ourselves in these debates and start considering adding overhead that potentially has little value at best, and destroys our ability to exhibit agility at worse.

I believe that this focus on adding qualifiers such as best or good will ultimately impede our ability to create an agile ecosystem which I discussed in my previous two posts.

Has “Best Practice” seen its day?

What one person may think is a ‘best practice”, may yield quite the opposite effect for someone else in a different context.

David Marquet of Turn the Ship Around fame tells a story during his talks that implementing some of the practices he was taught for the nuclear submarine he was originally trained to command, would have scuttled the one he ended up commanding instead. Fortunately, one of his crew altered him to the issue. That kind of an opposite effect can cost lives. While the practices may have been “best” on this original command assignment, they would have been catastrophic on his actual assignment. The context had changed. Think about that.

From the book description: “he took the ship from worst to first by challenging the U.S. Navy’s traditional leader-follower approach and instead implementing his own framework of leader-leader.”

Rod Collins in his most recent book, Wiki Management, describes 50 different practices that a small group of vanguard companies are using to manage at the pace of change, rather than trying to manage change.

According to Collins:

“As managers struggle to keep pace with a fast-forward world, they are increasingly becoming aware of a very troubling problem. They are discovering that methods and practices that have always delivered predictable results aren’t working anymore.

Forecasts are suddenly unreliable as new disruptive technologies radically reshape markets. Cutting costs does not necessarily result in improved efficiencies and productivity. Proven analytical methods are now too slow and cumbersome to keep up with a fast-changing world. And exerting more control seems to drive companies out of control—and sometimes out of business.

In a world where change is constant and longstanding rules don’t seem to work anymore, it’s not surprising that many managers feel overwhelmed by what appears to be a completely unmanageable state of affairs.”

Collins added a caveat to his fifty practices that not all of them will work in every context, and said that even for those you do consider using, they will likely need to be adapted to your context.

Notice he simply used the term “practices” – no qualifiers like best or good, just practices. A focus on simply adopting and applying the practices of others is based in the traditional hierarchical management model (and some vendors) which is premised on the “all knowing leader” who tells people what to do – in this case, follow this practice.

Collins further observed that many of the issues facing modern organizations are shifting from discrete problems, to holistic messes. Traditional hierarchies are intrinsically ineffective for the speed of decision-making that is needed to manage at the pace of change and to solve these holistic messes.

These holistic messes are also far too complex for any invdidual leader to be expected to have all the answers for their solutions. Similarly, it would be sheer folly for us to assume that we can take practices devised in a different context from ours and apply them without further thought. You need collaboration among your leaders and teams to co-create solutions that can work in your context.

So we should not give up on our own creativity and insights by simply deferring to the practices of others – it’s ok to consider the opinions and insights of others (emphasis on plural), but if we don’t really understand what the practice is, how to apply it, when not to apply it, or if we don’t understand when the practice is weak or non-existent in some area that matters to our context, then we become what I have dubbed a Method Lemming. We are blindly following something that we fundamentally do not understand.

Qualifiers add little to subjective ideas. We can say one car is faster than another by doing simple measurements. So much can affect the results we get from the same set of practices being used by one team as compared to when they are used by another team – even in same organization – let alone across organizations and across industries.

We need to able to determine if incorporating someone else’s practices into our own will get us something we value.

Do we get value from the Practice?

We should always ask ourselves two questions before we adopt someone else’s practices; What extra value will I get that I am not getting already? And, is it worth the cost of implementing this practice to get that additional value?

There are lots of practices out there of equal value or of some value, on any topic or issue that you may face. It’s up to the individual or the individual team to sort out how to adapt the practices of others so they can apply it in their context to get something additional that they value.

They are people, let them think!

Ester Derby observed that “adults enter into contracts, choose mates, raise children, and make all sorts of important decisions. Why do we expect that those very same adults need close supervision when they come to work?”

Good question!

Practices that work for one team, may fail miserably for another. There may be some general truths, but there are no absolute ones.

People need be able to and to be encouraged to use their own judgment, creativity and insights in selecting what might work in their context, as they adapt the practices of others to their situation. Heck, they might even come up with some practices of their own – but only if you as a leader are willing to create the environment in which it can happen such as Marquet did with his leader-leader framework.

While there are lots of practices from which you can choose, it is up to you and your teams to collaboratively decide what is right for your organization, and for your context. And if it isn’t? Don’t use it. Or create your own practices. Now there’s a thought.

This does not mean you cannot learn from others by looking at their practices. What it does mean, in determining what to do in your circumstances, is that you and your teams should have both the confidence and the courage to consider creating your own practices that are relevant to solving your own messes or in combining aspects of different practices from elsewhere with your own adaptations. And be willing to quickly make adjustments based on what you are observing. And be trusting enough to let your teams and their people make adjustments.


The idea of best practices was born out of an era that is coming to a close – traditional hierarchies and traditional management tell people what to do, when and how to do it, and for how long to do it. For an increasing number of organizations, the pace of change in the modern world precludes simply doing what everyone else is doing. Plus it’s not much fun either.

Have fun with your practices – whatever they might be and wherever you might find them. You don’t need to become a Method Lemming.

Leave a comment, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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