When “Best Practice” is Bad Practice

Fresno - Werner TheaterThe 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.

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

12 Responses to When “Best Practice” is Bad Practice

  1. Inspiration may have greater transformative power than prescription, but you’ve got to have the right people in the room and on the board. This may sound harsh, but sometimes there’s little wisdom to inspire. As Jim Collins would say, you’ve got have the right people in the right seats on the bus if you want to build a great organization.

    That said, as a communications professional I am entirely on board with the kind of guided inquiry you suggest. It’s always best for an organization to find the answers rather than being given the answers.

    I have many of the same issues with “best practices” that you have. However, I believe there is such a thing as “basic practices” that can be shared from outside. For example, having a marketing or communications plan. I can’t begin to tell you how many nonprofits I’ve dealt with that don’t. I think we all can agree on certain fundamental practices that should apply to everyone. If you want to call it a best practice, fine, but I think it’s simpler than that.

  2. Well said, Hildy. (Btw, really enjoyed that Twitter chat.)

    Another side-effect of adhering to “best practice” is that it stifles innovation. After all, by definition an innovation cannot be an established “best practice”!

    Yet over and over, managers steeped in “best practice” thinking ask of any new idea: “Where has this been done before and been proven to work?”

    New ideas are almost always dead on arrival in such an atmosphere, unless they can be cleverly wrapped in the non-threatening, tried-and-true. (Soon after being asked that question at my last staff job, I left. Hey, life is too short.)

    This phenomenon isn’t confined to the social sector, but it sure is prevalent in our organizations. And only those that defy it are going to make real change happen.

    My two cents,


  3. Amen, Hildy! I just finished a project which included a deliverable of “identify best practices,” a term which I truly believe has become in the social sector world its OWN “best practice.” We did a research first/instead about why it didn’t make sense to identify best practices and a roadmap about how they might think about *effective* practices. I’m sure it will circle back, though…people want so badly to have THE template to copy.

  4. As I read your post (and the comments), a three-word phrase kept running through my mind: “OUR Best Practice.”

    “We” can incorporate outside-generated practices (mindfully) and/or create our own (sometimes inspired by those outside practices–even in opposition to them).

    But the final principles must be owned by us.

  5. I finally made it over to check this out–generated a lot of discussion! 🙂 I really connected with issues #1 and #2, especially–a lot of my work has been in immigrant communities of color, and, especially when working with populations often marginalized, defining for ourselves what is ‘best’, and how to best pursue it, is an essential part of owning our own stories and our own processes. Thanks for this!

  6. Wow – what a great discussion, and what a lousy week for me to have been too busy to participate (sorry!!).

    First, Dan, in my own experience, I have never found a group that does not have the wisdom to answer questions such as, “What do you want that this action to accomplish? For whom?” and “Why is that important?” Which makes the process generative rather than prescribing best practice.

    Which brings me to questions for everyone so far – what have you found DOES work when folks insist on knowing what has been tried / wants a magic pill? Pam and Liz both noted circumstances that make it difficult to move forward.

    How do we, as James suggests, move such groups from “THE” best practice to “OUR best practice?”

    How do we create situations where, as Melinda notes, folks are “defining for themselves what is best and how to best pursue it?”

    Wonderful food for thought, one and all!!!


  7. Hey Hildy,

    Yer awesomeness continues to astound!

    Post Katrina/Rita New Orleans and the Gulf Coast have been swarmed by experts of all stripes & colors. I keep trying to explain that best practices cannot exist for a catastrophe of this magnitude and we therefore are compelled to innovate.

    I Tweeted this column this morning and then, on Facebook said:

    “If you work in the Community Benefit sector, please read this.

    If you have a Masters Degree, please read this twice.

    PhD, three times……”


    The New Orleans Institute

  8. The idea that there is ANY ONE WAY to do things Right or Best is a huge issue for relationships between managers and teams, and to tell you the truth, for people generally. When a husband tells a wife that Best Practice is Football, the wife opines that it’s Soccer and junior thinks it’s Skateboarding, we are going to have issues, and ultimately everyone is going to be unhappy. This kind of squabbling and scrapping scenario is what much of management has become–a battle for whose narrative will hold sway, forget how effective the narrative will be, that’s secondary to winning the battle to have your Practice declared Best.

    Best Practices become are a weapon of choice in the management game. Because there can be only one Best, managers are inspired to compete with one another for supremacy, usually at the expense of people who are waiting for decisions and direction.

    The quest to own ‘Best’ is at its most toxic when managers are pro bono (“If you don’t want my opinion, why did you ask?”) or justifying the difference between what they get paid and what their teams get paid (“I’m a genius and you’re not, okay?”).

    Inspiration is a tricky thing to traffic in, because it comes and goes, and the most inspiring (emotionally uplifting) point of view can also be the most ephemeral and unachievable. I have a good friend who’s an inspirational character, so inspiring that Hollywood made a movie about him. I wouldn’t want him coaching my team, though, because he only knows one way to approach a problem, and that’s with a kind of relentless, sunny, never-say-die over-the-top cheerleading optimism that is unique to him. Most people don’t have his game, and most don’t want to. He’s great to have on the team, but day in and day out, he is far from its most valuable player.

    Overuse of the phrase Best Practice is a symptom of an organizational illness, a telling twitch in the body politic. The illness itself, the battle by managers for control of the narrative, is what I call Scripting. The opposite of Scripting is Improvisation. The way I see it (as Hildy knows) the ability to improvise is the most important practice in the day to day life of a productive team. There are huge benefits to improvisation, and one of them is that it’s not necessarily a Best Practice. It can suck like the first day of violin lessons. It is, however, a practice that can, over time, turn into sweet music for everyone who plays along.

    Geez, this started as a comment, and has turned into a blog post. I’ll wrap it up at http://www.gamechangers.com

    Thanks, Hildy, great thoughts as always!

  9. Ray:
    Bring us there to help! Really – and please!!!

    And Mike, I love the idea of improvisation as inspired innovation (so many i’s!). I will look forward to your post and to exploring that thought more in my own head. Thank you so much for that!!

  10. Sometimes healing isn’t what healing looks like.

    Working in a community centre a few years ago, a facility typically perceived as servicing clients (don’t like that term, but what have you), I learned that some of the best work was actually achieved “by broken” people (translate: the folks who themselves were the neediest of the needy, assisting, working, engaging – dare I say – loving one another enough to effect change. Without the “normal” methods, skills or “expertise” to create this profoundly moving imparting of wellness in the guise that still looks like brokenness.
    Best practices approach would have stunted – and creates the silos all the experts claim to want to break down, sometimes.
    Healing isn’t what healing looks like.
    I am a community engaged artist working in a variety of settings in Victoria British Columbia Canada.

  11. I agree with a lot of what has been said, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. Seeing how others have solved a problem and identifying a solution that has become an expected practice is usually a good first step. Why spend time and effort coming up with a solution from scratch when someone else has already solved the same problem? Save your energy for novel problems that need solving. Problems nobody else has solved yet. Then share your solution so that others can learn and, in some cases, emulate.

  12. As a sometime consultant to the for-profit industry (at Arthur D. Little and The Boston Consulting Group) and a long-time member of two non-profit boards, I find good sense in the article if one assumes that b\est practices are shoved down people’s throats. If you don’t assume that, then the feeling I get is of giving a dog a bad name in order to hang it. Good practices have for at least three decades been figured out by groups from within companies trying to find a better way to do things. Whether they are “best” or not is beside the point. The point is, instead of having a Not Invented Here syndrome, which rejects ideas from the outside, these groups go and study what other people in other organizations have done in similar circumstances. The essence of what made Toyota great was their ability to sole problems on their own as well as learn from others. Let’s NOT get so caught up in our own cleverness and wisdom that we forget that the world outside has a million times as many clever and wise people. And while every organization is different at some level of detail, it nevertheless has useful similarities to many others. The core idea of “best practices” is to learn from others how to get better, not best. It shouldn’t get lost in the verbiage and terminology.