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?”)
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
- a lack of board accountability for end results in the community
- board micromanagement
- the assumption that organizations must treat the very people who care most about their mission as enemies
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.
As you seek to inspire and energize your board, your staff, your volunteers – even your donors – you may just find this lack of Best Practice to be the “best” practice of all!
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?
If you are a consultant, join us at our new blog: Consultants as Catalysts for Community Change!
Photo credit: “Not What it Seems” by Hildy & Dimitri