Chaos and Complexity #9: Debunking the myth of Best Practice

by Gary Monti on November 9, 2010

“Best practice” is one of the most popular buzz phrases today in project management and other professions. It IS valuable but, in my experience, it misses a much larger mark, i.e., the heavy lifting required to get to the point where best practice can be applied. The fact is work is typically a real joy when the best practice stage is reached. So what else is there? What comes before best practice? Let’s explore.

Framing the Problem

The underlying issue regarding whether or not best practice methods will work can be viewed in terms of problem framing for systems that are rule-based. In terms of chaos and complexity theory systems that are rule-based can be divided into two broad categories based on potential outcomes: predictable and unpredictable. Within each of these there are two subcategories.

For the predictable outcomes the systems can be either simple or complicated.

For the unpredictable outcomes the systems can be chaotic or complex.

Predictable Systems

Simple systems have rules that work correctly all the time. These systems are called “symmetrical.” A wristwatch is a good example of a simple system. The more symmetrical the watch is the more it is prized for its accuracy. Another way to view simple systems is to think of a coin separator. The coins are put in at the top and the predictable get slotted into the correct silo.

Complicated systems have rules that work correctly all the time but have multiple rule-sets from which to choose. Here imagine several different types of coin separators and having to choose which one to use. This is the realm of best practice. Many consulting firms sell themselves as providing best practice. That is fine but, again, that isn’t where the heavy lifting is needed.

Before going on one important point to make is predictable systems have a top-down command-and-control structure.

Unpredictable Systems

Chaotic systems are rule based but only show intelligible patterns at the macroscopic or statistical level. Hurricanes are good examples of chaotic systems. Patterns can be discerned from outer space. Trying to make sense of what happens on a particular street in a particular town in the middle of a hurricane is insane.

Reorganization is a good example of a chaotic system. The directives make sense when looked at from on high in the organization (strategic) but all Hell breaks loose at the individual, day-to-day level (tactical). Relationships are cut and people are left to free float and figure out how best to form new connections.

Complex systems lie somewhere between complicated and chaotic systems. An outstanding characteristic of complex systems is emergence. This is where new patterns emerge bottom-up. (For more on this read my blog series on change management.)

Emergence is the appearance of entirely new traits, properties, or modes of behavior that could not be predicted using the rules that started the system. A classic example of emergence is consciousness. One can study neurology and the interaction between nerves without ever “seeing” the rule that says, “And now we will have consciousness and the ability to self-reflect.”

In the business world the work to reconnect during and after a reorganization is an example of working in a complex way, i.e., having the beginnings of order emerge from the chaos.

The Myth of Best Practice

And now it is time to destroy the myth of best practice. In my experience best practice teams are put together in situations that are at best chaotic or, if one is lucky, complex. These situations suffer tremendously when a top-down approach is attempted.

As previously mentioned, the biggest problem is the team becomes disembodied – floating out past Pluto. Why? A common problem comes from the application of spin.

Experiences only make sense when we can place them in the correct context. If management naively insists (spins) situations are complicated (best practice) or simple when they are actually complex or chaotic it is impossible for the team to connect and build a truth system appropriate for the situation at hand. The project drifts helplessly while the team practices what I call “frenetic procrastination,” i.e., burning hours with nothing to show for the efforts – just pieces and parts.

In the next article we shall dig deeper into this issue.

Gary Monti PMI presentation croppedThrough his firm, Center for Managing Change, Gary Monti has over 30 years experience providing change- and project management services internationally. He works at the nexus between strategy, business case, project-, process-, and people management. Service modalities include consulting, teaching, mentoring, and speaking. Credentials include PMP number 14 (Project Management Institute®), Myers-Briggs Type Indicator certification, and accreditation in the Cynefin methodology. Gary can be reached at gwmonti@mac.com or through Twitter at @garymonti
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