What Is “Best Practice” Anyway?

IT is changing at a phenomenal rate and at times we struggle to make sense of the vast array of tools, technologies, architectures, patterns, methodologies that are at our disposal. Sometimes we just want to be told the ‘right answer’. Product vendors, standards organisations and various consultancies are only too happy to assist. Enter the best practice guide. Sometimes it is easier to let someone else do the thinking – but those that fall into the trap of blindly following ‘best practice’ without critical analysis could be doing their clients a major disservice.

“Imitation is the sincerest form of collective stupidity.”
– Bill Munro, Marketing Director, PepsiCoWe often hear the term ‘best practice’ but has anyone actually paused to think what it actually means? Most people would say that ‘best practice’ means using technology, techniques and methodologies that have been proven by an industry to produce desirable results. Or words to that effect.I’m a huge believer in the concept of best practice. Knowledge sharing is vital and we need a collective body of knowledge which everyone can contribute to and use. That said, I think we need to scrutinise the concept of ‘best practice’ a little closer.Although he probably never used the term ‘best practice’, the father of the concept was probably Frederick Winslow Taylor, who revolutionalised industrial production in the early 1900’s. He said that there is “always one method…which is better than any of the rest.”That may be true if you’re running a assembly line producing widgets – theoretically you could take all the variables out of the equation and create a standardised and repeatable process. But the same cannot be said of the modern business and IT world. There will always be variables such as:

  • the skills and experience of people involved
  • the organisation itself (culture, politics, role of IT etc)
  • the infrastructure you have to work with
  • resources (in particular time and money)
  • and many more

When reading a best practice guide it’s important to understand the context within which it applies – no best practice can ever be universally applicable to all situations. At the very least you need to understand:

  • who is giving the advice
  • why did they write it
  • what real world situations has it been tested on
  • who is the intended audience

Anyone that blindly follows ‘best practice’ without understanding these basic things could potentially being doing their clients a disservice. For example:

Looking back instead of forward.
Best practice is honed and developed over a period of time and so it follows that it is backward looking. On some projects you want to minimise risk and stick to what the industry knows. In some situations though you need to blaze a trail. Just because something isn’t best practice doesn’t mean that it is inferior or inadvisable.

Over-egging the pudding.
Many might think that the terms ‘best practice’ and ‘fit for purpose’ are at opposite ends of the ‘quality’ spectrum but sometimes real ‘best practice’ for a given situation is whatever achieves the desired outcome for least cost and in the shortest possible time. Hold the trimmings!

Failing to properly assess alternatives.
Many times I’ve seen situations where ‘experts’ hide behind ‘best practice’. The answer to everything is always ‘that’s best practice’. It’s a way of shifting responsibility. If it works out – then great. If it fails in a particular situation its not their fault. They recommended ‘best practice’ – its used everywhere and if it failed in one organisations it must mean there’s something wrong with the organisation not with the approach. Rubbish. All they have is a hammer and as the saying goes, they see every problem as a nail.

Failing to understand the BEST in ‘best practice’.
What do we mean by the word ‘best’ anyway? Do we mean the quickest time to market? Cheapest? Latest technology? Best performing solution? Easiest to maintain? Least moving parts? Most secure? Easiest to maintain? Most future-proofed? What exactly?

Having said all that, I’d like to make it clear that I’m not advocating completely ignoring best practice guides and always going it alone – potentially reinventing the wheel or repeating mistakes others have made. The point I’m making is that you need to critically assess the advice – use as much “best practice” as you can and rely on your skills and experience for the rest.

One final point, if you do deviate from best practice it pays to be clear in your mind (or even document) the reasons for that deviation. Could you justify the deviation to group of your peers? Sometimes there is a temptation to ‘just get on with it’ and do it your way rather than taking the time to understand what someone else has done. That is NOT a valid reason for deviate from best practice.


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