Don’t be a “Best Practice Sheep”!

The idea of Best Practice is universal and seductive! I’m often asked for best practices for Scrum or how to scale Agile. We instinctively want to know the answer and have the recipe for success.
The message of this blog is, please don’t be a “Best Practice Sheep”!

So what is best practice? Here’s one definition:

Best practice comes in all shapes and sizes. We steal checklists, cheat sheets and workshop templates on LinkedIn. We copy the Spotify “Model” or implement a big framework like SAFe, and these are effectively large collections of practices.

And it is an attractive and compelling concept:

So what’s wrong with taking a shortcut with some proven practices?


Well, here are some points to ponder:

  • The success of a given practice is highly dependent on the context for which it is suitable. They are often Copy & Pasted without regard to the context and principles that informed the original derivation of the practice.
  • The larger and more comprehensive a practice or set of practices, the more context-specific it becomes. With increasing size, the probability of an unadapted practice being a suitable fit for your specific context decreases.
  • The assumption that a given practice is “Best” prevents us from improving the practice because, clearly, it’s already as good as it can get, and if you mess with it, you might break it!
  • Adopting the same practices as everyone else means that if you do it really well, you might just be as good as them – never better, though!
  • The journey is at least as valuable as the arrival. The engagement, empowerment and ownership that come from a group analysing and deriving their own answers to challenges is a large part of the magic of the practice that emerges.
  • Adopting best practices often seems to cut out critical thinking in exchange for passively following along a path setout by others who have done the thinking for you.
  • Practices are often a static snapshot in time. For example, the “Spotify model” is a generalised view of patterns used at Spotify circa 2012, as presented by Henrik Kniberg (who made it clear that the content of the talk would be out-of-date in 6 months).
  • Who says that a given practice is “Best”? Is there an official, unbiased body? Is it just very commonly shared, so we assume it must be best?

So what should we do instead?

  1. Start with your context and understand the problem that needs to be solved.
  2. Apply principles to guide the selection of potentially appropriate patterns and practices.
  3. Use small experiments to evolve and emerge your own context-specific practices.
  4. Repeat! Continuous Improvement should just be the way we always work!

This diagram shows a spectrum of more abstract principles through to rules in practices. The likely observed behaviours are also shown.

Summary

  • Don’t dumbly follow best practices!
  • The hard work of emerging our own practice is worth it!
  • Best Practices can be used as input but explore the underlying principles and adapt to fit your context.
  • Emerge your own practice, using small safe-to-fail experiments to validate/invalidate your assumptions and ideas.
  • Evolve through constant inspection and adaption – you are never done as your practice is never “Best”!

For a more detailed look at the challenges of Best practices and what to do with them, here a talk I gave on the topic.