Best practices and context

Stripping away the context to arrive at best practices causes leaders to focus on “what” and never get to “why.”

“Don’t look for best practices,” scientist-turned-business-strategist John Seely Brown said to a group of executives from Fortune 100 companies last month. Brown was once the chief scientist at Xerox. He’s now an adviser to the provost at University of Southern California and head of a center at the consulting firm Deloitte.

He was a once strong advocate for best practices. Today he thinks that the process of stripping away the context to arrive at the most effective actions or process misses the reality that context matters. Leaders don’t need to strip away context, they need to learn to read it.

In the last month, I have worked with two different groups of anthropologists, each of whom is starting a business of teaching business leaders how to understand culture. In each case they are training folks to ask questions of what, when and who. Those questions build rapport for the most important question, “Why?”

Seely Brown worries that talk of best practices causes leaders to focus on “what” and never get to the “why” that opens up understanding of context.

In college, I worked a summer temp job in a spinning department of textile mill. One day I was assigned to move hundreds of used metal spindles from a shed to an abandoned auditorium on the second-floor. The stairs were not able to support the weight of the 50-gallon barrels of spindles, so I had to carry the spindles up a bucketful at a time. At one point, the superintendent of the spinning department walked by and asked what I was doing. I described the task and added, “I don’t know why I’m doing this.” The super retorted that I was worker, not a supervisor. I did not need to know why.

With the constant pace of change and the resulting sense of uncertainty, the press of immediate concerns are even stronger than the superintendent’s instruction to respect hierarchy. Under such stress, how do leaders gain capacity to ask and discern why?

Ron Heifetz coined the phrase “get on the balcony” to describe the need for leaders to take time to get a bird’s-eye perspective on their work. In “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership,” Heifetz and co-authors Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky urge leaders to “stay diagnostic even as you take action.

"Develop more than one interpretation. Watch for patterns. Reality-test your interpretation when it is self-serving or close to your default. Debrief with partners as often as you can to assess the information generated by your actions, and the interventions of others, in order to think through your next move.”

I am not advocating that leaders become toddlers and ask “why, why, why” in an endless loop that drives every parent I know to finally say, “Because I said so.”

The question of “why” needs to be on the mind of the leader, but the investigation of “why” is similar to the practices urged by Heifetz and company.