How Best Practices work – an example from Sport

Best Practices are part of Knowledge Management, but sometimes misused. Here is an example of how they really work.

Picture originally from here

There is a lot of pushback in the KM world about the term “best practice”. In the discussion groups, we hear people saying “we don’t believe in best practice”. Respected KM gurus say that “best practice harms effectiveness”. There is a school of thought that says the concept is flawed, or even dangerous.

Certainly if best practice is used the wrong way – for example as a reason to avoid innovation and improvement (“we are already following best practice – no need to change”) – then it can be a danger.

But let’s look at Best Practice in the context of sport, let’s look at the value the concept brings, and lets see how it develops over time. This will allow us to draw some conclusions for the world of KM.

Let’s look at the high jump.

There was a time when there was no established technique for the high jump. People approached the bar front-on, often from a standing start. However as the high jump became an international field event, techniques and practices began to be developed.

One of the early successful practices was the Western Roll, introduced in 1912, leading to the world record of that time, and a step change in performance. This new practice rapidly became “best practice” of the time, and was predominant through the Berlin Olympics of 1936. You can see the introduction of best practice in the graph above, as an abrupt improvement in performance (labelled Western Roll, followed by a long flat period, as the new best practice becomes established.

The Western Roll was superseded by the Straddle technique in 1937. You can see on the graph how this new practice led to another step-change in performance, with record height rapidly increasing over a period of years as the technique was perfected and adopted around the world, and then a flat section where the new best practice becomes common practice.

Then in 1968, Dick Fosbury introduced a new technique, the “Fosbury flop“, to win a gold method in Mexico City. As Wikipedia says, “After he used this Fosbury flop to win the 1968 Olympic gold medal, the technique began to spread around the world, and soon floppers were dominating international high jump competitions”. The new practice had become Best Practice, and so standard practice. Over the years since 1968, the details of the Flop have been perfected, but it still remains the basis of Best Practice in high jump techniques, until a new technique is discovered.

So what has all this got to do with Knowledge Management?

Basically, this is a metricated historical look at Best Practice under controlled conditions, and allows us to draw the following conclusions.

1) Best Practice is what delivers Best Results. In high jumping, this is easily defined – it’s the technique allows you to jump higher than any other technique. In the office, it is whatever approach gets your work done better, or faster, or cheaper, or best satisfies the customer.

2) People will follow Best Practice whenever they are highly incentivised to deliver the best performance. In an Olympic Games, people will adopt a new Best Practice when it allows them to jump higher than their old practice did, and when they have not yet found an even better practice (see number 1 above). Nobody would not go back to the practice of the Western Roll.

3) Best Practice is not static. Best is “Best for now, until something better is found”. The existence of “current best” doesn’t stop you looking for Better. In the history of the High Jump, Best Practice has changed three times – from no defined practice, to Western Roll, to Straddle Jump, to Fosbury Flop.

4) Best Practice is easiest to develop and copy in a relatively repeatable situation, where the parameters remain fairly constant, and where the metrics are clear (such as jumping over as high a bar as possible).

5) Under such circumstances, changes in Best Practice drive step changes in performance – the steps seen in the attached graph. Adoption of each new Best Practice gives a step change in performance, followed by a flatter performance graph where the new Best Practice is refined and perfected.

6) There will be personal variants of Best Practice, but the core of the practice – the fundamentals of the technique which differentiate it from other techniques –  remains the same. Tinker with the core, and the practice fails to deliver.

7) Changes in Best Practice are often driven by changes in context. The Fosbury Flop, which drove the biggest leap forward in high Jump achievement, was made possible by the change from sawdust landing pits to deep foam matting. Basically, you could land on your neck without killing yourself. So the new Best Practice – the flop –  was born.

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