Best Practices and The Hidden Problem

Allow me to share with you one of the key points I’ll be making in my presentation tomorrow on the 1721 smallpox epidemic in Boston. The audience, by the way, is a group of Justice Deparment officials from Indiana and surrounding states. The point I’ll make is from 290 years ago but feels as fresh as this winter’s sun. A best practice can, in some cases, be the first step toward an outdated practice.

A person, team, or organization can become so enamoured with a best practice that they become unable to consider anything else. The rise of a new way of doing things, no matter the evidence of positive results, is ignored in favor of continuing a technique or practice that is also proven and more readily accepted. This stubborn loyalty to a best practice is particularly likely when the innovation in question comes from an unusual source. Please be careful that your best practice doesn’t harden into the latest expression of the “way we do things here.”

In case you’re wondering, Boston’s officials in 1721 had an outstanding system in place for dealing with the horrors of smallpox. If there had been a professonal conference on smallpox response, the keynote presenters would have been some of the Boston guys. However, a new method of dealing with smallpox–inoculation–was found in conversation with ex-slaves and current slaves from Africa. The people who wanted to try inoculaton were shouted down and in two instances, attacked. It was a classic illustration of a best practice run amok.