Let’s Ditch the Phrase “Best Practices”

I have been delighted to learn that many of my best colleagues cringe just as I do at the phrase “best practices.” Best for whom? When? Why?

Let’s take an example. It’s best practice to avoid having spouses on a board. And many of us have seen horrible results from such arrangements. If one spouse is under-performing and missing commitments, can anyone approach them about that without angering the other? Will even raising the issue cause the loss of two experienced board members at once? And do they always vote the same rather than independently—or maybe even deliberately vote against each other, without any rationale except they had a fight that morning? 

All this happens. 

Yet I’ve also seen hard-working boards, usually in organizations with few of any staff, where board members become close friends and socialize after meetings. And especially if they don’t live near each other, then travelling as a couple to meetings makes the bonding though meals easier, and the travel less onerous. I know numerous organizations that would surely die if spouses were not allowed to serve together. There’s no point forcing what’s a best practice for most, on organizations where it would be totally unwise.

Multiple Paths to Success

No matter what kind of help I am seeking to engage in my numerous hats, I have learned to beware of anyone who comes in with the one right way, the one right answer or the model we should follow.  Some do this before even asking a few open-ended questions to learn about the culture, history, situation or current personalities! (I am not saying that current personalities are the deciding factor in choosing a way forward, but they sure do have an impact in what can realistically be proposed or quickly accomplished.)

I’ve been working with and volunteering at crown corporations, associations and charities for over three decades. I’ve witnessed a truly amazing range of ways to achieve a mission. Our sector is often the source of innovative ways to organize, leverage resources and inspire supporters. If I were to come into a situation sure of a “right way”, I would lose the opportunity to understand unique approaches, or be curious about why an unusual arrangement seems to be working for them. My next organization might benefit from that option; having a closed mind helps no one.

But choices can be difficult, and organization-wide decisions can be scary, especially for board members who only have a few hours a month to dedicate to that organization. So it’s human nature to want to be told about a best practice, or a model that will guide (or dictate!) their choices about everything on that topic. If they seek help, and that person won’t tell them “the answer”, what use are they?

Pursuing “Best Practices” Alternatives

The answer is to engage someone with the skill to guide dialogues and discussions and enough knowledge of the topic (but no skin in the game) to help the person or group develop viable options. They need enough experience to be able to comment when problematic options appear to be getting serious consideration. 

It’s OK to give anecdotes about what’s happened in other organizations that have tried that approach (facilitators advisors and coaches need lots of stories). 

It’s good to emphasize the importance of considering consequences before, for example, the group decides on an option likely to anger members. A question like, “if you make that choice, how will you communicate it to members?” is often enough to persuade the group to keep talking about the issue before choosing.

Is there better language? 

Changing How We Talk About What’s “Best”

Speaking just for myself, I am much more comfortable talking about “wise” practices. That term, to me, implies that there are indeed unwise practices, but also doesn’t limit the good possibilities to a single option. There might be several ways to be wise. And I find “approach” to be a less limiting way to talk about governance, my main area, and anyway there is no governance model in common use in the not-for-profit sector. (Yes, there’s one that gets named, often because it’s the only one anyone can name, but even organizations that claim to be following are usually not complying on a closer look).

My wonderful colleague in Australia, Steven Bowman, recently published an article on why “choices” is a better term than “decisions”, because choices sounds so much less final, easier to revisit as circumstances change and new information becomes available. The article is a free download at consciousgovernance.com/choices-future-and-communities-white-paper and the site is well worth exploring for other great governance resources.

At a Maytree Foundation event in March 2018, I heard Robin Cory of Colbeck Strategic Advisors suggest we think about our approach to our mission (theory of change, strategic plan, whatever you want to call it) as a version. I thought that was wise, since it implies there will be new and better versions. We aren’t saying we got it wrong before, just that we’ve tested out a version or hypothesis, learned more and now have a new one to test. 

And that’s language anyone who has developed or used software, or been involved in any kind of science, can relate to. It’s not insider jargon, and avoiding that is always a best practice. Well, no. It’s useful shorthand internally, but it’s a wise practice to avoid it in broader audiences, isn’t it?

I’m challenging you to think about language that is helpful without closing off curiosity, innovation and learning. And I’d love to learn from you.

P.S. This article was originally published by the Canadian Society of Association Executives.

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