Better than best

Can you do better than best practice?  The word ‘best’ has a note of finality about it (if something is the best then it cannot be improved upon).  As a practitioner I don’t recognise this condition.  There is always something new to learn.

Best practice presumes that there is a set of procedures or techniques that consistently produces superior results. I don’t know about you but I cannot look at what I do in the world in this way. I’m a practitioner, so when I think about good practice I am not just talking about what other people do, but what I do. I cannot bracket out my own ways of doing things. 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 a formula or method.  However well I may do something I try to approach every action as a rehearsal for the next one.

My colleague, Andrew, took time during his doctoral research to talk to trainers to understand what motivated them. Surprisingly one of the things that came up in the conversations was an anxiety about how adequate the training was. Had their training initiative been good enough? Was a good score on the smiley sheets at the end of the day an indication that the day had been a success?

Good enough is a term that is used, for example, in the software industry where in critical situations, good enough isn’t good enough. Think, for example of the software failure that led to the recent crash of two Boeing 737 MAX aircraft.

On the other hand a potter, spinning the wheel and shaping the pot will often notice an inconsistency in the clay or find a small crack when it comes out of the kiln. Rather than discard the pot the skill is in working with the imperfection to create something unique. It tells the user that this was hand made and all the better for it.

Or consider parenting. Donald Winnicott, a British psychotherapist, was the first to closely observe the relationship between a baby and it’s mother. At first the child needs constant attention but as it grows, the ‘good enough’ parent delays gratification slightly, a change that contributes to the baby’s mental development and sense of the external world. Being a good parent is complex. Such behaviour doesn’t follow a formula. At best, as most parents will say, it can be good enough.

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.