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Best practice is the worst
Best practices suggest that doing the same thing will work in different contexts. That's often a form of malpractice.
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
David Wagoner, from “Lost”
There was a time, not long ago, when everyone in Arts Management was searching for “best practice.” Funders, conference sessions, reports, websites, and social media posts all requested or shared the one best way to do something – from raising funds to building audiences to managing creative teams. It was, and remains, an intoxicating idea: That there’s a “right” way to do anything you’re doing, and all you need to do is discover it.
Unfortunately, there are two variables that make any best practice suspect or even silly: humans and their environment. Best practices suggest that doing the same thing will work in different contexts – different people in a different place did something successful, so you should do that too. But human behavior and an entangled environment tend to make that kind of best practice a form of malpractice.
The Cynefin Framework (pronounced kuh-NEV-in), developed by Dave Snowden over the past twenty years, offers five ways to make sense and take action in five different domains. Only one of them flags best practice as the best path:
Sense-Categorize-Respond: In the “clear” domain, cause and effect are obvious and reliable. You and your team only need to identify and categorize the problem in front of you, and respond accordingly. This is where best practice is actually possible, but only as long as the world continues behaving in consistent ways.
Sense-Analyze-Respond: In the “complicated” domain, you can still discover cause and effect, but it takes expert and in-depth analysis to do so. Here, experts may offer multiple good ways to take action, but not one best way.
Probe-Sense-Respond: In the “complex” domain, behaviors are entangled and dynamic, with emerging patterns suggesting ways to engage. Here, you can only learn the dynamics through action and observation – little experiments that you can amplify or dampen as you observe their effects.
Act-Sense-Respond: In the “chaotic” domain, anything can happen without apparent cause or pattern. Here, your task is to act quickly and creatively to muddle your way out of the chaos.
The Aporetic Turn: Finally, when you and your team are “confused” and unable to determine which domain you are in, the framework suggests that you sit with the paradox or puzzle of the moment (aporia) to move away from confusion toward action.
The essence of Cynefin is that any complex human endeavor requires adaptive practice, responsive to its context and considered by its community. Most of the time, there's nothing “best” about it.
p.s. For a more detailed overview of the framework, a graphic representation, and links to more resources, visit the ArtsManaged Field Guide entry.
From the ArtsManaged Field Guide
Function of the Week: Accounting
Accounting involves recording, summarizing, analyzing, and reporting financial states and actions. Accounting and art may seem like total strangers, but two of their primary innovators were best of friends.
Framework of the Week: Cynefin
A framework of five domains or decision-making contexts that helps you orient yourself and your team toward productive action. Before you dive into action, determine whether the currents are clear, complicated, complex, chaotic, or confused.