Published here September 2005.


Musings Index

Best Practice: The Holy Grail of Project Management
Or Fallacious Argument?

Today's project management buzzword seems to be "Best Practice". Everyone wants to convince you that they use, adopt, recommend, advocate, or train (take your pick) in best practice. The idea is, climb on their bandwagon and you are home free. It all sounds highly desirable, and shouts of excellence, but is it really so?

Let's examine the origin of these incarnations. For the most part they are derived from surveys of the project activities of top companies, or from the opinions of hopefully large numbers of those engaged in, or with, these companies. Certainly that is a good place to look. But how reliable are the findings?

Here are some pointers that might be affecting the survey results:

  • Most organizations who have established some form of project management process have done so to fit their own unique culture and organizational structure. The resulting practices may or may not be more generally applicable.
  • Why would top-performing companies want to disclose details of practices that give them a competitive edge anyway?
  • Is it realistic to think that a balanced view will be presented, i.e. the net effect after accounting for both successes and failures in the survey?
  • Assuming that a truly unique and successful practice is unearthed, i.e. a real "best practice", then because it is unique, it will be lost in the survey identification process that typically averages out to the lowest common denominator.

Besides that, isn't "continuous improvement" supposed to be a "best practice"? If that is true, then surely as soon as a "best practice" is identified, someone will come up with an even better practice. In which case, the former "best practice" is not longer the best practice, right? Quad erat demonstrandum (QED) as my old geometry master used to say.

But there is another cogent reason to be wary of in this kind of sales pitch. It goes like this, and as I have said before, "Just because everyone does it, doesn't mean that it is the best thing, or even the right thing to do!" I suggest that the level of dissatisfaction with project performance in certain industries is testament to that.[1]

The fallacy is a natural one. Everyone else around you is doing it, or believes it, so you too believe it must be right. After all, it is very uncomfortable being an odd one out. Accordingly, you do the same thing and get the same results. But there are ample cases in history where subsequent events demonstrate clearly how false this assumption and lemming-like response can be. Here's one classic example:

  1. Most people who lived during the Dark Ages believed the Earth was flat.
  2. Because so many people believed it at that time, one concludes that, at that time, the earth was flat.

Of course we now know that the earth is not flat. Indeed, I have satisfied myself on that point by flying right around it in a single trip. We also now know that it never was flat. Statement #1 is perfectly legitimate, but statement #2 depends on the presumption that "If a large number of people believe it, the probability is that it is so." These days, we really should know better!

So what we have is a lot of hype designed to fool the most gullible. But as professional project managers, what should we be thinking? I suggest that instead we look to "Recommended standards of practice, good practice or even excellent practice" but only if it is provided by a reliable source. Such source might be a standards institution, where the ideas, concepts or processes, have been thoroughly tested and the reputation of the organization is acknowledged and depends on it. And there's the rub. How many professional standards institutions actually test their own pronouncements?

So, beware of any "Best Practice", or even a recommended one that carries a caveat something like this: "Please note, we disclaim all liability for any adverse effect of any nature whatsoever, whether special, indirect, consequential or compensatory, directly or indirectly, including less than satisfactory results, arising from the application or use of these recommendations or information." (Yes, I've actually seen one like this!)

It simply means that the lawyers are nervous - and rightly so. The message is: so should you be too.

1. See Room for Improvement, A New Report on the State of Project Management at
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