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Monday, March 23, 2009

Share Best Practices - Patterns

Interesting post by Jane Bozarth - The Myth of "Best Practices".

A "best practice" is best only in the precise, specific context in which it exists. …

What works in my marriage won't necessarily work in -- and may even damage -- yours.

Even if moved from one situation to another very close one, the odds of transfer being made with practice intact is nil.

How do we address those who pressure us to produce a list of, or abide by, "best" practices?

The comments are also interesting but focus primarily on the word "best" vs. "leading" or "better" … overall the suggestion was to be very careful about assuming because something works in one situation it will work in others.

So, the first thing I did was to quickly search my blog for any mention of "best practice" – whew, I don't use the term much.  Dodged that bullet. :)

Patterns and Knowledge Work

I understand the concern that when you share best practices, you may come out with very different results.  That said, I also understand exactly why people ask for "best practices" and why our organizations ask us to help "share best practices".  

In Rethinking Knowledge Work, Kirby Wright describes Gary Klein's model of decision making:

sense-makingStudies of health workers, executives, military, firefighters, pilots and others have found that sense making, pattern recognition and mental models are essential components of decision making.

As an individual encounters a situation he/she makes sense of the issue. Making sense generates cues and allows one to recognize patterns, both in the nature of the problem and response. Through pattern recognition, the problem solver identifies actions to address the issue. As one begins to act, they are also assessing, in real time, the potential impact of their actions. In particular, highly skilled workers demonstrate the ability to reflect-inaction (Schön, 1987), to conduct mental simulations as a way of imagining possible outcomes. As problem solvers do this, they adjust their actions on-the-fly.

This really rings true to me.

And this suggests that there is big value in providing knowledge workers with ways to assess a situation, to find the cues which link to possible approaches and actions.  I think that we all somewhat inherently know this.  It's why it's so great to go to sessions where you hear what other people have done when faced with similar situations.

Patterns Defined

While Klein uses the term "pattern", there is another definition of Patterns (or Design Patterns) which is a great example of the kind of information that we can produce which is valuable and maybe is not a "best practice" but is close.  From the above definition, a Design Pattern is defined by:

  • Pattern Name and Classification: A descriptive and unique name that helps in identifying and referring to the pattern.
  • Intent: A description of the goal behind the pattern and the reason for using it.
  • Also Known As: Other names for the pattern.
  • Motivation (Forces): A scenario consisting of a problem and a context in which this pattern can be used.
  • Applicability: Situations in which this pattern is usable; the context for the pattern.
  • Structure: A graphical representation of the pattern.
  • Participants: A listing of the classes and objects used in the pattern and their roles in the design.
  • Collaboration: A description of how classes and objects used in the pattern interact with each other.
  • Consequences: A description of the results, side effects, and trade offs caused by using the pattern.
  • Implementation: A description of an implementation of the pattern; the solution part of the pattern.
  • Sample Code: An illustration of how the pattern can be used in a programming language
  • Known Uses: Examples of real usages of the pattern.
  • Related Patterns: Other patterns that have some relationship with the pattern; discussion of the differences between the pattern and similar patterns.

I often use less formal patterns and you can see examples of patterns in Using SharePoint or at the WikiPatterns site.  But the goal of these definitions is similar.  Look across examples of practices and abstract out the common structure of solutions.  Define where it might apply and what it is.

Going back to the "myth of best practices" … yes you still need to evaluate if this pattern will work for you, figure out how you might need to modify it.  But what's the alternative – start from scratch each time?  I don't think that's what is really meant, but I would claim that:

Patterns are extremely high value and we should look to produce patterns whenever we can.

Better Patterns

Taking this even further, in Data Driven (one of the few posts that uses the term "best practice") I talk about a model where we take data (e.g., customer satisfaction data) and provide knowledge workers (e.g., store managers) with specific possible actions that they can take to try to improve.  We allow them to modify how they will apply these actions as we know that it often is best to have it modified to better fit the store.  We also allow them to use alternatives.

This is something that certainly would be called sharing best practices in many organizations.  I guess we could also say that it is Patterns that we have identified and we have tied them to specific situations based on metrics.

We have the added benefit in this case to measure the impact of applying these patterns to determine the impact.  This means that we are able to determine better and worse performing patterns.  While the organization involved used the term "best practice", I can understand an argument for not using that term.  But, I do think that finding, distributing and helping to apply better patterns is an incredibly effective approach to performance improvement.


John said...

Very thought-provoking, Tony. Thanks.

Personally I eschew the term "Best Practices" for another reason: after thirty years in the computer business I've found that the term is often used by vendors to mean "why our product is the one to buy." When I see a whitepaper called, say, Best Practices in X, I know it is a vendor of x trying to sell his or her product.

Nancy Devine said...

I think we should strive for expert practices and not best practices; best practices is a term so frequently and carelessly used that the life's been wrung out of it. To find expert practices, I suggest looking at a great book: "How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School." According to the book, experts think like this(actual quotes from the book):
1. Experts notice features and meaningful patterns of information that are not noticed by novices.
2. Experts have acquired a great deal of content knowledge that is organized in ways that reflect a deep understanding of their subject matter.
3. Experts' knowledge cannot be reduced to sets of isolated facts or propositions but, instead, reflects contexts of applicability: that is, the knowledge is ''conditionalized" on a set of circumstances.
4. Experts are able to flexibly retrieve important aspects of their knowledge with little attentional effort.
5. Though experts know their disciplines thoroughly, this does not guarantee that they are able to teach others.
6. Experts have varying levels of flexibility in their approach to new situations.
Because of the way expert have knowledge organized, they can "reflect in action" and "adjust their actions on the fly."
We want people in their jobs to be experts, to use what they know in the ways that experts do. How do we get them there?
Vygotskian learning theory is instructive. Learning proceeds from social speech (that speech and support provided as people are learning) to private speech (that which we say to ourselves as we do something we're fairly familiar with) to inner speech (the habituated internal talk we might not enough notice as we do something)
Teaching, then, becomes finding ways to make manifest your inner speech, the inner speech of your expertise. The work is figuring out how to do that.

Disco Sam said...

Another alternative to the term best practices is effective practices - that way you aren't talking about the "best" way to solve a problem but one that has been effective for others in a similar situation.

Matt said...

Hi, first time reader commenting here.

I echo John's thoughts that "Best Practices" typically means the vendor's solution for all problems that involves buying a turnkey solution from the ground up. Not feasible.

However that may be at the moment, I disagree that "best practices" are something that we should actively avoid. It's just that in our profession, "best practices" haven't really been established.

Here's an example: Where did you learn to run network cable? You either learned from the guy who worked there before you or you taught yourself. How many ways are there of running cable? Sure, you think it's simple, until you run it past power conduits or the wrong type of lighting, or too far. That's a simple example. Things get much more complex than running cable well.

There is at least one other profession which deals with physical layer problems the same way we do, and they absolutely have best practices. The practices are established in the electrician's code, and if they aren't followed, bad things can happen.

Our profession has never advanced to the point that the safest, best practices have been codified. They're taught in training classes from some networking vendors, or in general networking classes, but I doubt that you could go into your local Barnes and Nobles and pick up one of the two or three books at Amazon that look like they deal with the right topics.

And that's just the physical layer. IT Administration is not codified; no attempts have been made, and very few people have showed an interest in advancing the science of IT administration as opposed to the art of IT administration.

Yes, every situation is different, as Nancy said, but that doesn't mean established (and vendor neutral) best practices shouldn't be produced and advertised.

RFCs would be the ideal format for this. There are a great many applicable RFCs now, but there are thousands of RFCs available, some adopted widely, some not at all, and most in-between.

Once you finally get an organized body to decide on RFCs, you've got to advertise the existence of them. How long was it after you started administration that you learned about RFCs? There's got to be a way to let the recently-initiated IT admins know about the resources available.

I don't think it ever should get to the stage that it becomes illegal to administer a network that isn't "up to code", but providing the resources for everyone to do it the "right way" improves everyone's experience

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Tony!

Interesting that Wikipedia, scant though it is on this term, touches on a lot you have detailed here, as well as the 'linguistic drift' of the term's meaning.

I have a passionate interest in words, so I get a kick out of the way a term, like 'best practice', gets moved around as in pass-the-parcel, changing its look and feel as it goes.

Often there's more than one way to skin a cat (or unwrap the parcel) so the superlative 'best' starts to flake a little.

Catchya later

Keith said...

In our training we have changed "Best Practices" to the term "Effective Practices". We find that people don't like to be told what someone thinks is a best practice. Therefore, we approach it from a "lessons learned" perspective and people seem more responsive.

Tony Karrer said...

Great comments ... I hope people will be reading these!

Looks like the consensus is calling it effective practices.

And to look out for anyone using the term "best" ... I'll need to be careful on that.

@Nancy - that's interesting list of attributes. I personally feel that there are aspects of expert knowledge that can be captured as things like patterns. When I see this (cue), here's what I consider. Granted, the expert almost always has more that they bring to bear, but it's still valuable to have the pattern.

One thing that this discussion brings to mind is the theory of giving feedback via stories of what happened to yourself rather than giving advice. I forget what this is called, but it's often very effective.

It also brings to mind how I always give the caveat about "Personal" before I dive into effective work practices. I don't call them "best" - but it's good to have this basis for what I'm discussing during that conversation.

Sreya Dutta said...

Tony, an excellent and thought provoking topic, that made me think of another post for my blog-Best Practices and Design Patterns

I would like to hear what you think.