Rethinking the Practice of Best Practices

Best practices can start a discussion, but if you’re looking to fuel real innovation, the ensuing conversation is what matters.
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The practice of issuing best and emerging practices for promoting innovation has become big business. Professional associations package case studies and bullet-pointed learnings, promising to reveal the secrets to success in social media strategy or public-private partnerships. Vendors promote free webinars and slick reports describing best practices that—not surprisingly—often involve use of their products. Foundations publish roundups of lessons learned, instructing potential grantees on how to incorporate the latest trends (say, ideation or crowdfunding) into their work to produce greater impact.

There’s nothing wrong with this kind of advice. An organization choosing human resources software or considering adopting a more comprehensive approach to social media can and should consult best practices. But while consulting best practices can be an effective way to glean information about frequently encountered problems and solutions, they are not especially effective as conduits for the diffusion and adoption of innovation—the holy grails for social change agents and stated functions of many best practice packages.

Of course, knowledge sharing is important to innovation adoption. In his landmark book, Diffusion of Innovations, sociologist Everett Rogers demonstrates that while mass media sources are the most efficient means of informing others about an innovation, “interpersonal channels” are much more effective in convincing others to modify and adopt an innovation. My organization’s study of knowledge sharing practices between local governments in California points to a similar reliance on personal contacts in deciding whether to implement a new approach, and how.  Local government staffers describe picking up the phone to discuss new approaches, successes, and failures with trusted colleagues, rather than relying on published reports to inform decisions about whether and how to innovate.

Published best practices rarely facilitate real dialogue with trusted—and confidential—sources. As the social scientist Eugene Bardach and others have argued, best practices are generally produced for broad audiences and do not do a good job of qualifying which communities should adopt which approaches. Context matters if innovations are to spread effectively: If I do not see a best practice as relevant to my unique constituency or if I cannot implement the approach with my organization’s resources, what is my incentive for adopting it?

Many professional associations for local government staffers, for example, divide award programs for civic innovations by size of community. This is a good start to qualifying approaches, but there are other considerations. Not all communities can afford to implement an environmental program such as Boston Bikes, or distribute iPads to elementary school students, even when the program is recognized as innovative. All communities need to develop disaster preparedness plans, but a plan that is appropriate for New York City will look very different than a plan for the City of Los Angeles; both cities have large populations, but they are constructed differently and face different sorts of threats. In cases such as these, best practices fail to address specific needs. Even if they spur thinking about previously unconsidered ideas, they are ineffective as guidebooks.

In addition, a number of social science researchers have found that best (and even emerging or promising) practices rarely represent techniques that are new and unproven. Instead, they encapsulate the prevailing wisdom in the field. Built into the notion of best practices is the assumption that if organizations follow the advice given, they will succeed. But early adopters of innovative practices often encounter significant obstacles, and innovations do not always produce the intended outcome the first time around.

In fact, failure is a huge part of innovation. Social innovators are increasingly promoting “failure sharing” and are developing a more constructive form of best—and worst—practices on how to fail gracefully and incrementally (through lean, lightweight, short-term projects) at events like the FAILFaire. But this is slow work. Some funders are willing to recognize the importance of risking failure as a pathway to innovation but others are reluctant to do so. A recent survey of business executives conducted by The Economist revealed that more than half either had “no system to deal positively with failure” or did not know whether such a system existed at their company. For local governments and nonprofits compelled to account for every cent, best practices simply reinforce the idea that only proven approaches are worthy of exploration and adoption. Far from their given intent, best practices often encourage debilitating caution.

Everything we know about the adoption of innovation shows that the mere exchange of information is not enough. Trusted sources and sustained opportunities for intimate exchanges about what works and what doesn’t work in different contexts are crucial to the adoption and spread of innovation. Best practices work best when they are contextual, include a balance of projects that have been tested and those that are still truly emerging, and acknowledge failure. Social innovators need to supplement them with sustained conversations about how to solve shared problems and modify solutions to fit unique needs. This is far more time-consuming and resource-intensive than releasing a glossy publication, but it is ultimately a much better strategy for promoting the adoption of innovations.