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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Are best practices obsolete?

There are many ways (some crazier than others) of dividing the human personality into categories or styles. Modern ones (Belbin, Myers-Briggs) are typically based on psychological tests, while ancient ones (Chinese or Western astrology) may be based on the position of the stars, or the shape of the skull.

Although the modern ones are more scientifically respectable than the ancient ones, they are equally subject to the fallacy of fatalism - imagining that we are condemned to remain in a given category. As Shakespeare puts it, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves ...". Finding out your personality type may help you understand why you made certain choices in the past, but doesn't force you to make the same choices in the future.

With that introductory warning about personality types, let me say something about a classification I sometimes find useful - Michael Kirton's distinction between Adapters and Innovators, known as the KAI scale.

Adaptors are the kind of people who say things like this.
  • "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
  • "No point reinventing the wheel."
Innovators are the kind of people who say things like
  • "If it ain't broke, fix it anyway"
  • "If it works, it's out of date."
Kirton makes three important points. Firstly, this is a spectrum, rather than a simple binary Either/Or. Most of us are somewhere between the two extremes. Secondly, adapters can be just as creative as innovators, but they tend to express their creativity in different ways. And thirdly, the classification is about preference rather than capability - adapters are capable of innovating in a given situation when they choose to do so (and innovators are capable of adapting).

I think Kirton's scale helps to explain the distinction I've been drawing between "best practice" and "next practice". Adapters like to do things better - to take a practice and improve it - to achieve mastery at some "best practice". Innovators like to do things differently - to experiment with "next practice".

I believe that, for various reasons, there is a growing demand for "next practice". If this means a shift from Adapter behaviour towards Innovator behaviour, then a lot of people are going to have to venture outside their comfort zones. But not everyone - the demand for "best practice" isn't going to disappear overnight, and some Adapters will be able remain in their "cylinders of excellence", continuing to develop and deploy their mastery of "best practice". Good luck to them.

Lenscraft wiki: KAI


  1. This is an interesting perspective though it doesn't quite fit with my mental picture of 'Next Practice'.

    I can see the logic of your argument about people who are at the adaptive end of the spectrum being more comfortable in a single area of competency. However, I hadn't really considered Next Practice to be innovative (disruptive) change as opposed to adaptive change - I think it could be either of these.

    I view Next Practice as standing back and looking at a situation carefully through different lenses to assess what approach is appropriate, including whether to be adaptive (understanding the evolutionary possibilities of the present, and moving forward from there), or innovative (producing some form of idealized design of the future state, and working out how to close the gap).

    This is in contrast with Best Practice where some 'good idea' is imposed on a situation, regardless of its suitability for the particular context.

  2. Oops, I now realise that I overstated my point in the last sentence above. As you said in the original posting, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with best practice as long as the context is right!