Good Practice > Best Practice

You know how, often, when things do not quite make sense in your head, and then you read an article in which someone describes a model that fits perfectly, and you realise that other people have thought about that thing a lot more and better than you ever could, and so you can finally put this one thing to sleep, so to speak?

Well, I do, except for the putting to sleep, which in my case is more putting it into an article so I can google it later.

The particular thing, today, was my level of not being comfortable with the term “best practice”, and the trigger was an article in a German online publication about the Cynefin framework.


I’m a bit torn about writing this, because in essence, I’m just summarising what the article said. On the other hand, I’m looking at it from a web analytics perspective, so maybe that’ll make it more tangible.

The research I mentioned above has been led by a guy called Dave Snowden, when he worked for IBM, and it led to the Cynefin framework.

The framework classifies situations, or systems, into 5 “domains”, based on how easy it is to understand cause and effect:

  • obvious, when it is a situation or system so simple and clear that it is obvious how it behaves, or what cause has what effect,
  • complicated, the “known unknowns”, when cause and effect are not obvious, but can be found using analysis or expertise,
  • complex, the “unknown unknowns”, when “cause and effect can only be deduced in retrospect, and there are no right answers”
  • chaotic, when events are too confusing for a knowledge-based approach, and
  • disorder, when it is not clear which of the above would apply.

For each of those domains, the framework suggests a path of action. The only aspect of all of this that I want to look at here, is when and how “best practice” is a good thing.

Best Practice is simple

According to the Cynefin framework, the simple / obvious / clear domain represents the “known knowns”. These are situations or systems that are easy enough to understand. If you do X, you will get Y, every time.

If you wanted to, you could catalogue those Xs and Ys, and you could make it into a checklist, or maybe a decision graph.

Since there isn’t a lot of ambiguity, it is also very clear what one should do in any given situation or with a given problem or question.

This is where applying “best practice” makes sense! That checklist, for example, represents “best practice.”

What we do in this domain is see the problem, situation, or question, then categorise it, then apply whatever actions are in our list.

Examples? Sure: flying an aircraft, most of the time. Or locking your bike when you walk away from it in town.

Note that “simple” does simply describe the relationship between cause and effect! It does not assign any value!

As a kid, for example, we learn that when we walk, and we come to a road with cars, we stop and wait. Very simple! But extremely high value, too!

Heating it up

As we move to more complicated problems, questions, or systems, we can no longer decide simply by looking at a list. We have to apply some thinking, or heuristics.

The relationship between cause and effect is no longer that obvious, and there is no longer a clear answer. Often, there are multiple answers, each with their own caveats.

At this point, there can be no “best practice” anymore.

But there can be “Good Practice”!

Rather than “Sense > Categorize > Respond”, we should now follow “Sense > Analyze > Respond”, meaning we need good judgement, and expertise.

Surgeons are in this domain, as are lawyers, engineers, and pilots some of the time.

The article on Wikipedia mentions that the “Complicated” Domain is where artificial intelligence can be really powerful.

Since a lot of the stuff we do falls into this domain, we should see more AI in our line of work over time.

If you go one step further, to complex problems, questions, or systems, there are no more right answers, and you can only retrospectively see what was good or not.

Examples for such systems are economies, corporate culture, ecosystems.

I am almost sure that moving to a data-driven business model is a complex problem, and so is a big re-platforming project.

I have never been a client in web analytics, and so I can only speculate that when a vendor or an SI speaks about “best practice”, it may help reduce fear, and it may even suggest that the project at hand is simple.

Truth is that most of the projects we do (or at least would want to do) do not fall into the simple domain at all.

People look at us most desperately when they are coming up against something complicated or complex. That’s when they hope for an easy way out, some “best practice.”

Unfortunately, that is also precisely the type of situation that doesn’t come with “best practice” at all.

I think I’m trying to convince myself (and you) that we should not ever speak about “best practice” at all, and rather talk about “good practice”, or maybe experience, knowledge, and past successful judgement.


An aspect of the framework is that stuff tends to move through domains clockwise.

That makes a lot of sense.

Something comes up, and because noone has so far really understood it, or worked with it, it is chaotic, or complex. Then, over time, people learn how to use it, so the “Emergent Practice” turns into “Good Practice”.

That can happen because practitioners learn how to handle the complexity, or when it turns out that only parts of the something are valuable, and those parts are merely complicated, and we can ignore the rest.

Some time later, either through more experience, or more simplification, answers consolidate, and in some areas, it becomes clear that there is one way to do things: “Best Practice”

This is how we got from the Wright brothers and countless untold failures to the pretty good safety of routine flights today.

Clockwise, please

Just as passengers expect a flight to be routine, to work flawlessly, preferably every time, our stakeholders would love us to make their lives simpler.

That is a very normal human thing, I guess. Very few people want to be told that what they want to do is complicated, or complex.

Fair enough.

I guess that is why “get slim, fast!” products have such an appeal. The alternative, for most of us, is to work on it, all the time, for a long time, and that is really not an easy sell.

This pops up all over the place. Attribution is good example. The actual problem behind all attribution discussions is: “can you please tell me where to spend my marketing money for biggest impact?”

Dashboards are another example, and I stand by my opinion that when people ask for a dashboard, most of the time they want a co-pilot, really.

Most people, when faced with complexity, are looking for someone to take that off their shoulders.

Best Practice is harmful

Here is an aspect that directly affects you: if you call what you do “best practice”, you are telling people that what you work on is obvious, simple, clear.

If you’re in web analytics, or you are a developer working with web analytics, I think you can almost make such a statement, but the truth is that noone is just in web analytics. The whole stage is so much bigger!

You will at least work with Analytics plus tag management. Take into account how browsers and the ecosystem evolve, and it becomes at least a complicated.

It is likely that you will also work with some people who run campaigns, some people who are in content management, people who do advertising, web developers (front and back end), and more.

This is a highly complex environment!

When I joined Omniture in January 2008, we were talking about the synergies of using SiteCatalyst and Test&Target. Then Adobe acquired Omniture and went on a massive journey of adding to the portfolio, resulting in the Experience Cloud. That thing is so complex that it is hard to find people who can talk about it in reasonable breadth and depth!

I think that the plan with the Experience Platform is to simplify, operationally, but the capabilities of that beast are definitely complex, too. It’ll open up totally new places.

So, right now, if you work with these applications, you should not even talk about “Best Practice”. We are clearly in “Good Practice” & “Emergent Practice” territory.

Let’s not undersell ourselves!

Experts make things easy

You have all heard the story about that guy coming in and fixing something noone else could fix within 5 minutes, then charging a lot of money and being challenged “but it only took 5 minutes!”

When you are good or experienced at something, you make it look easy.

That’s good, of course, and it may actually be easy, but for you, not for everyone else.

There is a bit of a risk there.

People might look at how much time it takes you to do things, then conclude that it looked easy, so it must not be worth a lot. Experience is hard to see!

But you are experienced, you are good, so when you talk about what we are doing, don’t pretend it is simple!

Chin up, dress smartly, and speak about what you know, with the pride and gravitas, and, frankly, respect it deserves!

The Cynefin framework is not a perfect tool. There is criticism out there, some of it harsh. But I think that the “Best Practice” aspect is helpful, at least it helped me understand why I never liked calling anything “best practice.”

By the way, “Emergent Practice” sounds way more interesting than “Best Practice” to me. I’m quite happy where we are now.

5 thoughts on “Good Practice > Best Practice

  1. Whenever I here the term “best practice” I cringe. Our company isn’t just like every other, and our needs and structure are not the same. So why would you think what works best for others would work best for us? Best Practices should be limited to things like, “Don’t punch the IT dude who refuses to speak in anything but techno-gibberish,” and “don’t roll your eyes as soon the the Marketing ladies lips start to move.” Following general principles can help, but you need the flexibility to create and maintain something which works for your particulare purpose and company.

    If you insist on using the phrase ‘Best Practice’, at least append it with “Which Works For Us”.


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