Whenever I write an article, speak at a conference, or present to a client, I hear a common refrain: “What is the best practice for people in my situation?” Many consultants rely on opinion or experience when answering this question, and some dive into groupthink, regurgitation or worse. But this does not mean there is no such thing as a best practice. On the contrary, I have spent years developing a test that I use when measuring the soundness of an idea. It’s concise, simple to apply, and cuts to the core of the question, “what is a best practice?”
More Than Just a Good Idea
Some people may joke that they can make a practice into a best practice just by adding one word. I understand the cynicism many have regarding consultants in general and “best practices” in particular, and agree that many are pulled from thin air or vendor sales training. But I also believe that there are certain special ideas that do indeed deserve to be called best practices.
Let’s set aside the sales tricks and foolish notions that some disguise as best practices and focus on more solid concepts. Hopefully, we can all agree that there are good ideas and bad ones, and that “best practices” should be a subset of the former category. Let’s go one step further and agree that it takes more than one individual’s good intentions and past experience. Best practices must draw from universal experience and judgement.
I use the following three questions to distinguish a true best practice from a mere good idea:
- Is it prudent? Borrowing the Prudent Man Rule from finance, we ask: Is this something that a prudent person of discretion and intelligence would do? This simple question eliminates all sorts of oddball solutions.
- Is it widespread? It’s hard to argue that something rarely accomplished could be called a best practice. Cast aside untested ideas, no matter how good they look. Wait for someone else to risk their job.
- Is it low risk? Ask yourself, what are the chances and consequences of failure? It doesn’t matter if a solution works perfectly most of the time because only the failures will be highlighted.
These three questions can inform both daily decisions and strategic direction. Although it wouldn’t be much fun to live life this way, this philosophy can help with the big questions. And none of us are being paid to tempt fate.
Are Best Practices Relative?
It is true that one person’s optimal solution is another’s optimum mess, but what impact does this have on best practices? I believe that there are universal best practices that rise above the situation at hand as well as those that are only applicable in certain broad categories. And best practices are often set aside due to external pressures. Although best practices are not relative in general terms, some flexibility must remain.
One of my favorite universal best practices is the maxim, “use the right tool for the job.” This has served me well from the garage to the kitchen to the data center, and I hold it as a cornerstone belief. But this does not stop me from turning a screw with a coin, and I don’t own a double boiler. Sometimes, everyone has to make do with what they have at hand, as illustrated in Chase Jarvis’ wonderful book, The Best Camera Is The One That’s With You.
Another cornerstone best practice is minimizing complexity. Given two alternatives, the less-complex and more-homogenous one is usually a better decision. This often overrides the “right tool” concept in practice, as smaller needs might not justify greater investment. Consider also Occam’s Razor, that “the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.”
The fact that best practices must sometimes be set aside does not diminish their value. Indeed, one could say that practicality itself is a best practice!