15 November 2011

Best Practices – What does it really mean?

It is so interesting to me that everyone talks about wanting training in “best practices”. This term is often used to describe the kind of consulting we might provide as well. What does that really mean? I believe all of us have fed into the myth that best practices can be the basis for training individuals. Best practices are not trained, they are experienced.

If we compare the best practice approach to nature, we know that it not only the strongest but the most prolific species that survive. That’s one of the reasons it is so difficult to change processes in an organization. Think about that for a moment. The strongest and most prolific probably describe the majority of individuals you have in just about any group in your organization. I have seen this over and over in the System Engineering field. The strongest and most prolific engineers have often been doing their job for many years and have a specific way they do this job. Asking them to try new techniques and tools is often futile, as they don’t know how this is going to improve the already wonderful job that they are doing. Their practice is going to survive if we continue to shove a best practice approach at them.

So what do we do? Best practices start with our own personal experience. All of the books you pick up and read around best practices are about the author’s personal experience in some area, whether it is use cases, requirements elicitation, system engineering, testing, etc. At some point an organization decides that it needs a consistent process across the organization. There are lots of good reasons for doing this. So a group is formed to come up with a process that reflects these best practices. Since there are many best practices in the group, guess who usually wins? The strongest and most prolific. And the resulting best practice usually results in a compromise between the best practice group and those in the organization who perform this role. Studies indicate it takes about five years to actually role out this process across the organization. Then along comes the consultants who notice these practices. They may see an opportunity for business and so they get behind the practices that will lead to more business for them. They begin to show up in conferences and trade shows touting these practices and writing books. (Think about the Agile approach.) Because they are looking for business they are focused on the practices that will provide the most business for them. We are always in search of best practices so we don’t need to know how often it works, just that it CAN work. And so we continue to push that practice throughout the organization, hoping to realize all of the benefits that have been talked about over the years.

We must remember that best practices are based on hindsight. The best practices for your job are developed as you learned about that job. We can certainly learn from each other. That is not the point of this discussion. The point is that we need to base our best practices primarily on our own practical experience. We must be discerning in how we apply best practices to our jobs and our organizations. Just don’t accept best practices because someone wrote a book about it or spoke about it a conference. Research the practice and determine the environment in which they were fostered. Is this environment comparable to the one you are in today? Often there is little commonality. Choose the tidbits from the best practices that apply to you and your job and will provide real benefit to you. Start with slight changes and build on the practice as it is applied in your organization. Know where it has succeeded and where it has failed and learn from this. Remember that if you have strong and prolific objectors to the practice, you will need someone with a practical understanding of the practice to help the objectors see how this practice can help them. Listen to them and address their concerns. Don’t just ignore them and hope they will go away. They will not.

In other words, just saying the words “best practice” does not mean it will be a best practice for you.

By: Marcia Stinson

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