Better than best

The notion of best practice comes from a subject/object world – a world in which practice can be held at arms length, observed, measured and analysed.  I cannot look at practice in this way.  I’m a practitioner, so when I think about practice I am not just talking about what other people do, but what I do.  I cannot bracket out my own experience.  I may compare my own practice with others.  I may even try other people’s ways of doing things.  And I may share my own practice with others, but not with the intention that they should follow my lead.  I don’t even follow my own “best practice”.  What worked for me in one situation doesn’t work next time.  I can’t rely on formula or technique.  I’m not a technician, I’m an artist.

I suspect that talk about “best practice” is a symptom of what Donald Schon called technical rationality.  Technical rationality, the intellectual driver of contemporary political and business culture, thinks in the language of quality assurance and control.  It assumes that quality is achieved through adherence to well researched and standardised guidelines and procedures.

But good practice isn’t like learning to ride a bicycle or run a washing machine – skills that can be mastered with a little practice.  It is more like learning a foreign language.  You can get around the menu in a restaurant by memorising just a few phrases but there is always more to learn – local colloquialisms, the cultural norms expressed in the literature of the language, the ability to work with metaphor or create poetry in the language.

I’m not suggesting that technical skill is unimportant.  It is just not enough.  Schon contrasts our preoccupation with technical rationality with what he calls “professional artistry”, a personal combination of discernment, judgement and common sense – qualities that cannot be quantified or prescribed.  Perhaps most importantly, professional artistry recognises and values the practitioner’s own instinct for excellence.

I am reminded of an incident in my early career.  I was working on my first job as a broadcast technician in the south of France.  The head of department was a German engineer with an amazing set of skills, many self-taught.  To save money he would often design and build equipment from scratch.  I recall, on one occasion, that he built a reverberation panel for use in music recording.  When it was completed he invited the station manager into the studio for a demonstration.  The manager was very complementary.  “Well done!  Good job!” he said as he left the room.  After the manager had returned to his office the engineer turned to me and said, “He doesn’t know how good it is!  He has no idea what has gone into the design and construction.  I am probably the only person that can truthfully say how good it is.”

This comment has stayed with me over the years.  There are, of course, external criteria by which to measure the performance of a piece of equipment, but good work is more than meeting specifications.  My German friend was demonstrating an important feature of professional artistry – self-assessment – an inner awareness of a job well done.  At the heart of this practice is a quality of discernment, judgement and moral perception that cannot be reduced to technical guidelines and procedure.

This brings to the surface some important questions:

How, then, can good practice be developed?
If our preoccupation with “best practice” is a symptom of a culture of technical rationality what needs to change in an organisation’s culture (way of being) to affirm personal initiative and liberate the practitioner to follow their intuition?
And, what are the questions this raises for you?