Resting on Your Laurels Ruins Best Practices

Yesterday’s post, Just Tell Me What Works, discussed some of the weaknesses arising from a blind obsession with best practices. The chief weakness is the false belief that someone else’s solution will work perfectly for you.  But what if you avoid that weakness and actually do the hard work of thinking for yourself in order to create a definitive statement of a best practice in your context.  Are you done? As Joe Firestone reminded me today, unfortunately not.

Once you’ve successfully created a best practices (or next practices) document, it’s tempting to breathe a big sigh of relief, celebrate your accomplishment and then rest on your laurels.  With the passage of enough time, however, you end up with a moth-eaten collection of practices that are interesting primarily for historical purposes.  Your much vaunted “best practices” are now woefully out of date and may even be dangerous from a risk management perspective.

So what’s the solution?  Under the old model, you would ask the chief author of each best practices document to assume responsibility for updating the document as necessary.  Unfortunately, busy schedules (and disinterested authors) can make this difficult.  Yet, we’ve persisted in pursuing this model because it allowed the author to maintain control over a resource that was considered too important to have distributed authorship.  So, you focus on perfect control and get imperfect content.

A related problem with this approach has been identified by Joe Firestone and Steven Cavaleri as a gap between the claims of a best practices document and its track record.  Have those best practices been tested?  Have they passed the test?  If so, is that reflected in the record?  If not, what improvements are necessary?  To do this effectively, you need different folks interacting with the best practices document over time and reporting their results.  This can be done through the imaginative use of Enterprise 2.0 tools (e.g., collaborative tags and annotations), but it does require a willingness to relinquish a measure of control.

For best practice documents and all the other “solutions” promoted by the  firm, Firestone and Cavaleri advocate building a living and breathing knowledge base that provides current information and promotes innovation:

For flexibility and variety, the real knowledge bases we have in mind, ought to be distributed, rather than centralized, and Enterprise 2.0 and 3.0 technology including tagging, annotating, and mashups, and new semantic web applications, should be applied to create both a new and richer layer of meaning and integration across stove pipes. To be effective in creating high quality knowledge bases that will be most useful in enhancing thinking up new ideas, social computing technology must be applied both collaboratively, and in a way that includes all ideas, no matter how new and untested they are. The rule should be to let the knowledge base reflect the track record of performance of ideas comprising solutions, or the absence of such a track record, and leave it up to people to factor that into their own creative thinking.

At the end of the day, identifying best practices is the first rather than the final step.  You then have to test them regularly for currency.  If you give into the temptation to rest on your laurels, you’ll quickly turn those best practices documents into quaint historical artifacts.  Now, please explain to me how that helps your firm manage risk?

[Photo Credit:  Elizabeth Thomsen]