Bad Best Practice

Applied scientists get excited about Best Practice. New professionals and new hires often ask where 'the manual' is, and senior technical management or chiefs often want to see such documentation being spread and used by their staff. The problem is that the scientists in the middle strata of skill and influence think Best Practice is a difficult, perhaps even ludicrous, concept in applied geoscience. It's too interpretive, too creative.

But promoting good ideas and methods is important for continuous improvement. At the 3P Arctic Conference in Halifax last week, I saw an interesting talk about good seismic acquisiton practice in the Arctic of Canada. The presenter was Michael Enachescu of MGM Energy, well known in the industry for his intuitive and integrated approach to petroleum geoscience. He gave some problems with the term best practice, advocating instead phrases like good practice:

  • There's a strong connotation that it is definitively superlative
  • The corollary to this is that other practices are worse
  • Its existence suggests that there is an infallible authority on the subject (an expert)
  • Therefore the concept stifles innovation and even small steps towards improvement

All this is reinforced by the way Best Practice is usually written and distributed:

  • Out of frustration, a chief commissions a document
  • One or two people build a tour de force, taking 6 months to do it
  • The read-only document is published on the corporate intranet alongside other such documents
  • Its existence is announced and its digestion mandated

Unfortunately, the next part of the story is where things go wrong:

  • Professionals look at the document and find that it doesn't quite apply to their situation
  • Even if it does apply, they are slightly affronted at being told how to do their job
  • People know about it but lack the technology or motivation to change how they were already working
  • Within 3 years there is enough new business, new staff, and new technology that the document is forgotten about and obselete, until a high-up commissions a document...

So the next time you think to yourself, "We need a Best Practice for this", think about trying something different:

  • Forget top-down publishing, and instead seed editable, link-rich documents like wiki pages
  • Encourage discussion and ownership by the technical community, not by management
  • Request case studies, which emphasize practical adaptability, not theory and methodology
  • Focus first on the anti-pattern: common practice that is downright wrong

How do you spread good ideas and methods in your organization? Does it work? How would you improve it?