Experience and Science

The discussion about the different possibilities to fail when applying „simple solutions“ to „complex problems“ is everything but new. Especially the understandable but (often) useless desire for best practice has been intensively discussed. With this post I would like to explore the term best practice a little bit further in order to offer a feasible perspective on how to use the idea of best practice.

<meta remark>
Please don’t argue with me about Relativism if you do not have a Definition of Evidence (DoE).
</meta remark>

Often the concept of a best practice is understood as a cooking recipe with precise instructions about the ingredients, procedures and measures like temperature, time or weight. It sounds like a simple check list that one just have to follow and success is guaranteed. This metaphor is almost crying for a deeper exploitation, therefore it could be expanded like that:

Every experienced cook knows, that THESE potatoes in the recipe are not THOSE potatoes that you have at home (in terms of consistency, humidity, harvest date, exact species, soil, …). Further more each stove behaves different. And the pan used in the recipe is very likely not the pan you will use. So it is extremely helpful if you are experienced in preparing different ingredients of different „nature“ in various ways. Then you know how to deal with „the real situation“ and how to adapt the given instructions in order to create a meal that reflects the taste of the original recipe.

Of course this applies only if you cook with fresh ingredients – it is something different if you take instant food, e.g. a prepared cake mix, where you add some water and put it in the oven. This will work with a very high probability and you get a cake the fast and easy way. The only problem: It will always taste the same, since it is an industrialized product. It will taste well, if you like industrial taste. But if you want to make it fit your own „needs“, you are very much limited with a prepared package, even though it seems to be a „best practice“.

So recipes are either a description of a process that needs to be interpreted by the cook or they are indeed a simple set of instructions, which will always give you a kind of the same result. For the moment I want to state that obviously an experienced cook, who knows how to interpret a recipe, is an important factor if you want to achieve excellent meals of high quality. So the usage of a „best practice recipe“ demands a lot of heuristics and previous learning loops. But that’s not enough, if the cook wants to be really „free“ and enjoy the utmost range of options to „play“ with any ingredient and surprise the crowd.

Combine Experience with Science

Now a second aspect comes into play: If you want to get the above mentioned freedom, one should understand the science of cooking and that means primarily to deal with chemistry. If you know what happens with proteins at certain temperatures or how yeast can be used in different ways, then one gains the skill to create great meals with ingredients that other people would throw away. The cook can be „really“ creative and combine „things“ that seem to be contradicting. In the best sense it is possible to work with „taste paradoxes“ and get fantastic outcomes.

Now I have probably overstretched the metaphor, if you relate this to the question on how to use best practices in the business field. So let me summarize the insights from the metaphor:

– „Real“ cooking recipes are more than a set of simple instructions, therefore the cook needs experience to apply it well.

– The greatest degree of creative cooking can be achieved if one understands the science of cooking. This is where the fun starts.

What does that mean for the business context?

At first I want to point out that it is in my view OK to look out for best practices, if you don‘t take them as simple checklists. For me it is normal  („default activity“) to observe the market and especially the competitors. Of course it is too simple to believe it is enough to imitate the behavior of others, because then you would neglect the context of your organization: culture/atmosphere, rules and goals, associated roles or the individual actors in the system. But it is OK to understand how a competitor is or was able to generate more value in the market, in order to see patterns that might be useful in ones own situation.

Unfortunately there is a problem with our human pattern recognition: biases, fallacies and a nonreflective intuition can lead to „wrong“ observations and conclusions. That is why science and critical thinking are needed to close the cognitive gap and validate the individual and collective perception. Therefore I recommend to all my Agile, Lean, New Work and Change fellows to add scientific Systems Theory to your repertoire in order to find „hard science solutions“. Furthermore it is from my point of view necessary to use Social Systems Theory as best critic you can wish for. Rely on well explored insights and don‘t waste time by trying to reinvent the wheel.

PS: As a starting point I recommend to read a (German) post from Stefan Kühl about the problem that sociologic explanations are welcomed if they do not collide with ones world view.