What's the PONT

Groundhog Day and the Tyranny of Best Practice

Today is Groundhog Day. I’m not joking the 2nd February really is Groundhog Day.

Groundhog day is a much loved North American tradition, but according to the Oxford Dictionaries, it also stands for something else; “a series of unwelcome or tedious events that keep recurring in exactly the same way”. In other words, a continuous loop of the same old awful stuff.

By coincidence, I’ve had a bit of a ‘Groundhog Week’ with something ‘tedious and unwelcome; the ‘tyranny of best practice Cybermen’.

You know, the crowd who constantly repeat the mantra “services can only be improved by the identification of best practice and its widespread application. It will be enforced through a process of target setting and performance management. There will be no deviation, it will be adopt or justify” (with possible re-programming if you fail to comply).

This simple, ‘one size fits all’ solution to every problem, no matter how complex the situation, is a bit frustrating.  For my own peace of mind I thought I’d rehearse the arguments once again.

Best practice is not good practice, and neither of them are are the new practice that emerges in complex situations. The practice you adopt is hugely dependant upon the situation and trying to force people to use best practice that doesn’t match their situation can be huge waste of time and potentially damaging. I’ll explain a bit more:

Best Practice. The idea of best practice is something that has very much developed from industrial activities. Essentially you have a highly predictable, straightforward context. If you perform Task ‘A’, you will always end up with Outcome ‘B’. The process is the same wherever you do it.

The types of activities this might involve include; paying invoices, running the heating system in a building or maintaing the engines in the delivery vans. There is always the ‘best’ ways of doing something. Deviation from this method is not as good as the ‘best’.

Good Practice. For very many areas of activity there are multiple ways of achieving a good outcome. Situations are much less predictable and Task ‘A’ might not be the right thing to do to achieve Outcome ‘B’. You might need to try something different and people will adopt different methods, influenced by their knowledge, skills and experience.

This is a complicated world where you need to trust the judgement of experts to read the situation and get it right. Good practice from one situation may not be transferable to another situation. You can however adapt what is good elsewhere and apply it in the situation, its all about adaptation not rigid adoption.

When I think back to my days of education this is exactly what the teachers did. They adapted ‘good practice’ to fit the situation and achieve a good outcome.

New Practice. When you think about the complex challenges currently facing public services, with increasing demand and declining resources, this is entirely where we sit. The ‘right’ answers, and methods by which you get there are not known. You have to look out for something new that emerges. It is not possible to predict exactly what is going to happen in response to any activities carried out.

Large scale challenges like caring for people with dementia, helping people with complex needs live independently or dealing with organised crime need to be worked out through a process of ‘safe to fail’ experiments. The chances of someone else’s best practice working  in your complex environment (particularly if it is forced onto you) seems unlikely.

Understanding the Context is important. I cannot stress this enough:

This isn’t a world of one size fits all, and any ‘adopt best practice or justify why not’ Cyberman approach is only relevant in very specific simple situations.

I feel better for that. If you want read something more detailed on this I’d recommend:

So, what’s the PONT? 

  1. Best, Good and New Practice are not the same. The situations where they apply are different.
  2. There is a place for Best Practice, but it is highly specific.
  3. An ‘adopt best practice or justify why not’, is not a silver bullet and may actually cause more harm than good.

Finally, when I first posted this in 2014 I said……I do hope I’m not going to have another ‘Best Practice Tyranny’ Groundhog Day on the 2nd February 2015. If I do, I’ll re-blog this post…… looks like not a lot has changed. Happy Groundhog Day and have a look at this video of Groundhog Day Explained, it’s good fun.

Picture source. Groundhog Day http://acplkid.wordpress.com/2012/02/02/happy-groundhog-day/