Why is good practice such a bad traveller?

A straightforward answer, good practice is a bad traveller, because that’s the way we like it.

I’ve sat in a few conferences where there has been quite a lot of ‘hand wringing’ from the stage, about why this is such a difficult pastime. We all know that sharing knowledge and good practice is the right thing to do, but there’s just not enough of it happening. The “bad traveler” suggestion is posed by these clever people as a bit of an excuse, hinting at something that is slightly beyond our reach.

Well, I’m not convinced. The model of good practice transfer I understand is based upon three straightforward parts:

Sharing: you need a source of good practice knowledge that people are willing to share.

Seeking: people who are looking for good practice, are prepared to listen and accept what is useful to them.

Process: simple mechanisms that allow the two groups to communicate.

Here are my top six suggestions for why good practice isn’t travelling and is failing to progress beyond passport control:


  • Ignorance – people genuinely don’t know what to do. In a world of Google and Wikipedia I think this is nonsense. I’d change ignorance to ‘willful ignorance’;
  • Hubris“what can anyone possibly teach me?” Defined as an overconfident pride and arrogance. Hubris is often associated with a lack of humility and a lack of knowledge…..; and
  • Not Invented Here Syndrome – a bit like hubris. The view that nobody else would be clever enough to understand what you are doing or the “special” nature of your organisation or service;


  • Knowledge is Power – “if I share what I know, you will be as clever and as powerful as I am”, often seen with subject matter experts. I understand the need to protect intellectual property, but if knowledge is so closely guarded that very few people know, it gets self-limiting.
  • Turf and Territory – a bit like knowledge is power. For some people, what they ‘own’ defines their power base and who they are. Giving up territory and turf is difficult.


  • Ineffective Transfer Mechanisms – with so many organisations, professional bodies and amateur enthusiasts working hard to spread good practice, I’d argue that this isn’t a valid reason. If you want the information, it’s pretty much available somewhere.

This list has re-enforced for me the idea that knowledge transfer is a deeply social process. Almost everything I’ve listed is a human activity and I’d argue that the situation of ‘good practice being a bad traveller’ is a wholly social issue. At the end of the day, if people don’t want share and learn, it will never work effectively. As Dave Snowden says in his principles of knowledge exchange, “knowledge can only be volunteered it cannot be conscripted”. As we haven’t yet built a machine that successfully sucks the knowledge out of people’s heads, we need to acknowledge the social interaction element and get much better at it. Better we recognise this and direct our efforts here, rather than into ‘enabling’ IT systems.

For possible solutions, I’m only going to say one word (for the moment), trust. People are more likely to share information with someone they trust. It’s the reason why medieval torture machines (and computer databases) don’t really work. Better to have a chat together over a cup of tea (or glass of beer), and then I’ll tell you what you really need to know.

IMG_3577Eskimos in the Sahara Desert. Following a thought-provoking comment (see below) from Matt at Complex Care Wales I wanted to add something to this post.

Matt makes the point that we are better off trying to develop good practice that fits our own specific context, rather than import good practice that has worked elsewhere. I agree.

He uses the very helpful analogy of ” “good practice doesn’t travel well, just like an Eskimo in the Sahara”. The Eskimo ‘good practice’ way of travelling long distances around a desert (of snow and ice) is of little use for travelling in the Sahara (a desert of sand and heat). The ‘best practice database on desert travel’ many not have recognised this).

I’ve talked about this in other posts: Is Best Practice the Enemy of Innovation, and the ‘Buzzword Bingo, Best/Good Practice Glossary’.  Ultimately the transfer of good practice / knowledge exchange is a social process that is built upon trust. The choice of it being a ‘bad traveller’ ultimately rests with us.

So what’s the PONT?

  1. Good practice knowledge exchange is fundamentally a social process. IT solutions are a diversion away from the critical issue.
  2. Knowledge can only be volunteered and never conscripted (Dave Snowden). If I trust you I will share.
  3. Good practice is only a bad traveller because we choose through our social processes to make it one.

If you fancy finding out a bit more about the social aspects of knowledge exchange and some of the incredible things that can be achieved have a look at http://www.thenewsociallearning.com/ and read the book ‘The New Social Learning’, it opened my eyes!

Linked post: On why low trust in an organisation costs you money.


Cartoon Source: http://www.toonpool.com

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

19 Responses

  1. Nothing wrong with your logic here, especially as Good Practice requires a logical approach, but I’d go back to the ontology. Good Practice is a recipe. It requires the right ingredients and the right equipment all deployed at the right place, in the right order, at the right time, to produce similar looking outcomes. It’s not that Good Practice isn’t well, ‘good’, it’s that it isn’t all that useful when; the ingredients are different, the kitchen’s not the same and the cooks don’t know each other very well. In those situations, you need chefs not a recipe.

    So, deploying what is considered to be Good Practice, doesn’t always fit in the place where it ends up. As you say, it doesn’t travel well, like an Eskimo in the Sahara. The real use for Good Practice is the idea of Good Practice itself. That there is such a thing and it has some principles that you can apply in any situation. Organisations (inevitably run by people who can’t do the principle work) see a shiny example of the application of Good Practice and then by divine command insist that the ‘shiny’ is implemented here, irrespective of context! We want people to do applications of good practice, without teaching them the theory, which can be applied (albeit slightly differently) in any context.

    We expect people with experience and talent in their own fields to follow recipes. Whereas they consider themselves to be chefs and rightly so. Asking a chef to follow a recipe is insulting, asking a perfectly competent cook to follow a recipe without all the ingredients or a decent kitchen, is what creates the perception that the people are crap (not the context is different) and we need Good Practice databases and programmes.

    I’d say it would be better to invest in creating good practice wherever you are and facilitating some social exchange, rather than assuming practice can travel. Nice blog!

  2. Mike Palmer

    In 1935, the great inventor and visionary Nikola Tesla said in an interview with Liberty Magazine1:
    “[In the] twenty-first century… it will be more glorious to fight against ignorance than to die on the field of battle” It looks like he has been proved right!

  3. Great perspective, undermining the stereotypical responses to change.

    For me, the practice itself, whether good or bad (as you can learn as much from both) is rarely the issue. Nobody learns solely in their head by being told, you have to immerse people in learning it for themselves in their context. But you can help them along a bit quicker. We don’t have to constantly relearn that putting your finger in an electric socket is a bad thing!

    It’s more about the source of the practice and whether or not it fulfills Aristotle’s old but immeasurably relevant criteria:

    Ethos: that they have proved themselves trustworthy through personal endeavour.

    Pathos: that they understand the human context of the situation.

    Logos: that your line of thought can be articulated in a way other people can understand.

    2/3 ain’t good enough!

    Another cracker Mr Bolton

  4. […] The current emphasis on improving hand-washing practice would suggest that many of the previous ‘communications campaigns’ and other initiatives have failed to turn good practice into common practice. It’s far more complicated (and difficult) than just telling people what’s good for them. There’s a few suggestions on ‘why good practice is such a bad traveller’ in this post. […]

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