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Why Worst Practices Are Sometimes Best

From Clear Thinking Communications and Susan Parker
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Article: Why Worst Practices Are Sometimes Best

In the foundation and nonprofit world we hear a lot about the importance of sharing and learning from “best practices.” I understand the instinct. Why not learn from what works, rather than from what doesn’t? Besides, when you talk about your organization’s “best practices” you are subtly showing that it’s doing well.

But we don't typically learn from looking at what we or others do right. Both common sense and research show us why. Think about it. When have you learned the most in your life? Has it been when you’ve succeeded and done well? Probably not. It’s hard to learn from something that flows effortlessly – you don’t really have to think about it. 

Mistakes, however, are likely to get your attention, particularly if they had major consequences. Research confirms our experiences. Robert Cialdini, a psychologist and author of “Influence: Science & Practice,” recently cited research that shows we learn best from our mistakes and the mistakes of others.

In one example, he explains the results of an instructional program for firefighters. During training, some firefighters were shown case studies of best practices while others were shown examples of mistakes. The firefighters who were shown the mistakes performed better on their tests and in the field than those shown the success stories.

As communicators, it is imperative that we communicate the full picture of a situation and story. That full picture is rarely completely illustrated when “best practices” are shared. It is also too easy for people to object to a story of a best practice and say, "Well, our situation is different, and this can’t apply to us." And often, the term “best practices” can drum up the memory of attending a speech by that annoying classmate in high school who did everything right and seemed to never struggle. How can you relate? What does her experience have to do with the realities of your life and job?

So what does this mean for your work? Two things:

1. If you want your staff to gain skills in an area, find examples of mistakes to share with them. Show them relevant case studies that examine major and minor screw-ups. That will get their attention. Let’s face it-- disasters engage us more than smooth sailing.

2. If you want to influence your field, don’t just look for your organization’s best practices, but try and find where your nonprofit made mistakes. That can be tricky because few people or institutions want to admit to slip ups. But at the core of what we do is the attempt to make positive change -- and that does not always come easily. It’s never smooth and there are bumps along the way.  You need to be up front about those bumps so they don’t trip up people who might want to replicate one of your organization’s programs.

By talking about your own worst practices you also show that you and your organization are approachable and don’t claim to have all of the answers, though you may have some that could work for others.  You show that you are open to learning from others—an important trait for large foundations and nonprofits that sometimes get the reputation for being aloof and arrogant.

If you’d like some help in identifying your organization’s worst and best practices as opportunities for you and your colleagues to learn from, please contact us. Through interviews and case studies, we gently find out what has worked and what hasn’t in your organization or program.

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(c) 2009 Susan Parker, Clear Thinking Communications. All rights reserved. You are free to use material from the Clear Thinking ezine in whole or in part as long as you include complete attribution, including a live web site link. Please also notify me where the material will appear.
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