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Best Practice: Are We Missing The Point?

I have this recurring nightmare that just won’t go away.

So, there I am… I’ve just woken up from a nap on my favorite recliner in my living room. I’m still a bit groggy, but I look down and see my young daughter looking up at me intently through her hazel eyes. Really, she’s staring at me.

I sit there for a few moments, looking back at her and then I ask “what is it, Virginia?”

She looks away for a moment, looks back into my eyes and then asks the question parents don’t expect their children to ask until after they’ve had “the talk.”

Then she asks me:

“Daddy, where do Best Practices come from?!”

To which I reply:

“Oh, why don’t you ask your Mother that question…”

Fortunately, I did NOT reply:

“No, Virginia, there are no Best Practices”

This is all quite odd, given that I don’t have any kids and am not married! Still, it’s a relevant question she asks, especially for those of us who have an interest in service management. I think that in most cases, those who wax lyrical about “best practice” are really missing the point! So what is the point about all this “best practice” noise?! I’m glad you asked!! Let’s have a look…

What is a “Best Practice”?

So what exactly is a “Best Practice”? That’s a good question!


I could go onto the show floor at any conference and have some fun. In fact, you can try this experiment yourself! Find yourself five ITSM professionals/practitioners and ask them the question: What is your definition for a “service”? You might be shocked by what you hear. People use this term every business day, fully confident they know what it really means, yet it’s likely that the five ITSM professionals you’ve asked the question of will result in your getting (at least) six different answers!

It’s not that they don’t know what they’re talking about, but it’s a term which carries a fairly high degree of ambiguity with it, because of the number of ways and contexts in which it can be/has been used. Another complicating factor is that any answer is influenced by / based upon the perspective and perception of those answering the question. I know many professionals and academics dislike using Wikipedia as a reference for anything being seriously researched, but I think that it’s worth having a look at what it has on “Best practice.”

Are Frameworks “Best Practice”?

Some of you who are fans of ITIL®, COBIT®, etc. are bound to be thinking to yourself: “These have to be ‘Best Practice,’ right, Ken?!”

Yes. These are sources of “Best Practice” and all have their place in an ITSM practitioners bag of tricks.

Unfortunately, we cannot leave it at that. While a given framework may be a source of best practice, that doesn’t make it right for any given organization — it doesn’t suddenly become universally applicable to all organizations. Therein lies the rub in all of this. In fact, if you look to see why certain (almost all?) best practice frameworks have had their reputations tarnished in the market, it’s for this very reason! Recommendations in a best practice framework should not be taken as “the one true way,” because they’re not. If they were, they’d be called operating instructions.

If I am onboard a commercial aircraft, I expect that the crew, dispatchers, controllers and everyone else involved in the operation of the carrier will be working from “the one true way” — the established procedures for their job that are reliable and repeatable. Everyone in the aviation environment realizes that the penalties for missteps, omissions and errors is huge! People can die, aircraft and other assets lost and organizations penalized (whether directly or indirectly). The traveling public counts on those people to get it right every time! Fortunately, for the most part, they do.

IT organizations which “implement best practices” rarely work to ensure that the guidance is implemented with the level of rigor that is associated with aviation operations. Even if they wanted to, it wouldn’t necessarily be practical to do. Why? Because much of what is referred to as published guidance in the area is too high level to directly translate into detailed tasks. It requires that the practitioner go beyond what’s written in the books, but this point is often either overlooked or ignored.

The Practice Lifecycle

To help us navigate these complicated waters, let’s have a look at the Practice Lifecycle contained in the USMBOK.

Practice Lifecycle Diagram
The USMBOK Practice Lifecycle Diagram

I am not going to walk you through the descriptions of the lifecycle stages, as the descriptive text does a more than adequate job of talking about the main points that characterize each of the stages. What I really want to cover here are a few of the transitions from stage to stage. This is where there’s some real magic and insight to be had!

Walking Across the Lifecycle

It’s almost irrelevant where we start, but since we started with Best Practice in the title of this blog, I’ll start the list there!

As you can see there are five potential stage changes:

  • Best -> Good
  • Good -> Next
  • Next -> Common
  • Next -> Best
  • Common -> Best

To stay focused, we’re not going to discuss all of these stage changes/transitions, just those that are relevant to this post. I hope to address more in a future post.

Moving from Best -> Good — “Adopt and Adapt”

This is one of the most over-hyped and under-addressed aspects of best practice discussions. It’s also the thing that really drove me to want to write this post!

The fact of the matter is that when you come across a best practice recommendation, you should be asking yourself some questions before you ever start to think of “implementing” anything. Some candidate questions are:

  1. What does this guidance really mean? What would it really have us doing?
  2. Are we currently doing this or something similar?
  3. What level of change does this represent in how we already work/operate?
  4. What value does this represent to the customer? to our organization?
  5. What dependencies exist that we need to understand and consider?
  6. What impacts can we anticipate, if we choose to implement this practice in our organization?

These questions (and your answers to them) form a solid basis for what it actually takes to adopt and adapt recommendations to your organization!

In asking the questions, you are beginning to consider how well a given recommendation actually fits with the organization you’re currently in. In some cases, the right answer is — it isn’t fitting!!! In that case, you’d want to take that off the table and move on to the next one. The only scenario that would bring it back up for consideration is if there is another related recommendation requires it as a dependency/required component. In that case, you’re fully aware that the value you’re getting from implementing it is as part of a bigger picture, not because of the individual element’s value. I have no issue with implementing any best practice recommendation, provided that it’s carefully thought through and pursued for the right reasons.

We started with a “Best Practice,” but by the time we’re done working the questions and making it operational in our organization, we have (suddenly) transformed this into a “Good Practice.” It has now become integral to what the organization does and how it works. You couldn’t separate it if you’d wanted to! It’s no longer an abstract recommendation, but it’s part of the “new normal” inside your environment. This is where the real power is, folks!

Moving from Good -> Next — “Community and Communication”

Once we’ve made the move and established our Good Practices, we start considering what it takes to move from a Good Practice to a “Next Practice.” This is where it starts to get dicey!

It’s not because it’s overly complex, but because we don’t have many of the right social structures in place to support the cultivation of these practices. It requires communication, structures for collaboration and a community that is eager to engage. Ideally, the community represents a broad cross section of those who care about these practices and encourages mutli-/cross-disciplinary thinking. While it’s totally possible (and practical) to operate internal communities of practice today, their ability to mature these practices are limited because of the narrow scope in which they’re conceived and operated under.

For some organizations, their Good Practices represent a source of competitive advantage. As a result, they are often reticent to share the “special sauce,” because they don’t want to sacrifice their competitive position within the industries they serve. And there are yet others that don’t share or don’t get the full benefit of that, because their environment doesn’t really support it. This is why I believe that industry trade associations/groups are an ideal setting for fostering and leading these kinds of conversations, but many just don’t either seem interested in or consider it part of their charter to fulfill that role. An additional challenge, similar to the operating limitations found with many internal communities, is the (seeming) need to focus on a topic/theme that directly appeals to their membership. Unless the organization is in a position to network or collaborate with other similarly chartered organizations towards this end, it’s still likely to realize only a portion of the potential benefit.

Certain organizations fulfill some aspects of that role well, but have a much broader scope and cannot really afford to focus on the developmental aspects. Indeed, standards development bodies, whether national (ANSI) or international (ISO), are about as close as we can get to fulfilling this key role, but there’s a lot lacking in the standards development/evolution process. Organizations working at the national standards level may meet some of the Next Practice intentions described (e.g. corroboration, verification, and validation of benefits realized), but that isn’t a requirement for their operation — development by consensus is! In my view, there’s a long way to go to ensure that this is a common way of operating. It’s not hard, but it does take something that is beyond the ordinary.

I think the best example of a membership organization (either in or adjacent to the ITSM space) that currently operates in a manner consistent with these communal principles is HDI. Why? Consider these four points:

  1. They are a standards development/publishing organization;
  2. They have a highly engaged community of practitioners who care deeply about their “cause”;
  3. They devote time and resources to do extensive industry research and surveys;
  4. All of these elements are brought to bear when considering the evolution of existing and development of new standards.


There is nothing wrong with any of the commercially available “Best Practice” frameworks or the guidance that they provide. What does need some work is the basis upon which we use those recommendation, adopt-and-adapt them to become an integral part of our organizations and then communicate/collaborate to mature those practices.

Those who go down the best practice path must choose to approach that journey with an appropriate degree of caution, care and critical thinking. Those who do not are likely to find themselves struggling to find their way out of a failed initiative before it’s too late.

Obviously, there’s a lot more to say here than I’ve written. I could go on for days (and probably will)!

If you have comments, questions or would like to better understand how this applies in the context of the challenges your organization faces, please don’t hesitate to contact me. I’d be happy to talk with you!

Posted In:Org/Personnel Development, Service Management
Tags Used:Adopt and Adapt, ANSI, Best Practice, CIP, COBIT, Continuous Improvement, HDI, Improvement, ISO, ITIL, ITSM, Practice Lifecycle, USMBOK
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