Best Practice

“A best practice is a method or technique that has consistently shown results superior to those achieved with other means, and that is used as a benchmark.” This definition is from on October 28, 2011.

Why this is important

Unless one uses the right collection of best practices, whatever you do is likely to not be done well. The harder the problem, the better the practices must be.

Application example

When it comes to solving difficult problems quickly the first time, the following best practices tend to be used:

1. A true analysis of the problem is performed. Analysis is breaking a problem down into smaller problems so they can be solved individually. For a difficult problem, this has the effect of taking a giant Gordian knot of incomprehensible complexity and deftly turning it into a collection of much simpler and therefore potentially solvable problems. In practice this decomposition is so powerful it can transform a problem from insolvable to solvable.

2. The Scientific Method is used to prove all key assumptions. The Scientific Method is the only known method for producing reliable knowledge. Without it you cannot build knowledge upon knowledge reliably, which will cause a complex analysis and solution to collapse before they are even a meter high. This is the same as saying that without the Scientific Method you cannot create the large body of sound knowledge necessary for solving a difficult problem. Without the Scientific Method you can only consistently solve easy problems.

3. A formal process that fits the problem is used. If it's a good fit, then if correctly followed it will lead to solution or to discovery the problem is insolvable. A process is a repeatable series of steps and practices to achieve a goal, such as a recipe or Robert's Rules of Order for parliamentary procedure.

4. Learning from past mistakes and successes is maximized. As George Santayana wrote in The Life of Reason in 1905, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

These are the best practices of Analytical Activism, which is the use of analysis instead of intuition to solve difficult activist problems

Now for a simple test. How many environmental organizations are using all four of these best practices in a highly productive manner?

Sadly, the answer is none. An Assessment of Process Maturity performed in 2006 on ten representative environmental organizations found that none scored over 40 out of 60 points on these four best practices. That's only enough to reliably solve easy or medium difficulty problems. A score of 48 or more (80% of 60 points) is needed to solve difficult problems like the sustainability problem.

Are you ready for a shock? Only 2 out of 10 organization scored above 10 points. The United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) scored only 4 points. This is disturbing news since the UNEP is the world's leading global solution to the sustainability problem. Here are the scores:

Assessment of Process Maturity in the Four Best Practices
1. Alliance for Climate Protection
2. Club of Rome
3. European Union Environmental Directorate General
4. The Natural Step
5. Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)
6. Nature Conservancy
7. Sierra Club
8. United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP)
9. Union of Concerned Scientists
10. World Resources Institute

How well are you and your organization performing the four best practices?

Browse the Glossary
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Best Practices Are the Road to Process Maturity

A problem solving process is mature when it's capable of routinely solving the problems it was designed for. A process is a repeatable series of steps and related practices to achieve a goal. The steps and the methods they use are best practices. Seen from this perspective, a mature process is an organized collection of the best practices required to solve a particular type of problem.

Thus the road to process maturity is the steady accumulation of the best practices needed to solve the problem you're working on.

The Best Practice Trap

The basic idea behind best practice is sound. Whenever a practice is needed, one should always ensure it's a best practice.

There's a trap that's easy to fall into when applying the tool of best practice. See if you can spot it in this passage:

“The concept of best practice has been employed extensively in environmental management. For example, it has been employed in aquaculture such as recommending low-phosphorus feed ingredients, in forestry to manage riparian buffer zones, in livestock and pasture management to regulate stocking rates, and in particular, best management practices have been important to improving water quality relating to non-point source pollution of fertilizers in agriculture as well as the identification and adoption of best practice for controlling salinity.” (Source)

Here's the trap. Those employing "the concept of best practice in environmental management" as described above think they are doing the best the can to solve sustainability problems. But all the above practices do is raise carrying capacity. They do nothing to slow down overall growth. Nor do they address any of the root causes of the sustainability problem. This is because the above best practices address intermediate causes rather than root causes.

Countless “solutions” like the above have been implemented over the last several decades in attempts to solve the sustainability problem. All they have done is postpone the day of reckoning.