I took several classes in college that were all about corporate buzzwords, but all of them failed to mention a trend that is huge in corporate culture – that of the “best practice” document. In theory, these documents are great, and help you get the most out of your product, methodology, or technology. However, there are a few problems that these documents tend to create, and it is up to the reader to take them with a grain of salt. Listed below are a few of the pitfalls of adhering directly to one of these documents.

1) No one is perfect
“Best practice” documents are generally written by an idealist. This person has the responsibility to make the product or technique about which they are writing perform optimally. This means there is very little consideration for outside variables. Points in best practice documents tend to be very black and white – Do this, do not do this other thing, etc. Yet, how often is it the case that a reader is concerned with making only one piece of a puzzle work flawlessly? The answer is a resounding “never”, it takes the other 499 pieces of the puzzle working in tandem as well to produce something worthwhile and appealing.

2) Context is key
While we’re on the subject of black and white bullet points, we should discuss context. While adhering directly to a “best practices” document, it becomes easy to miss apparent pitfalls right in front of you. The document might say, “XYZ should look like ABC.” It becomes increasingly easy to see only the fact that XYZ != ABC, and even easier to miss the circumstances that made XYZ a little different than ABC. As mentioned in point #1, the writer of the “best practices” document is concerned only with making XYZ the best it can be. Often it is the case, however, that the overall quality of a product can be increased by decreasing the effectiveness or simplicity of a single component in the equation. Hence, context really is everything.

3) Stagnation is an enemy
“Best practice” documents literally define the status quo. Anyone who uses the same product or technology that you use will have access to this document. Therefore, it follows that they will have the same setup, the same features, and the same problems as you. At this point, what sets you apart? Where is the innovation, the fresh ideas to shake up the ordinary? As I remember reading elsewhere, what would have happened if Google followed the search engine “best practices” set forth by Yahoo and Alta Vista? Where would Apple be today if they took pages from IBM’s book about personal computers? This all lends itself very nicely to the next point.

4) Opinions become squelched
Now suppose you or a member of your team has an idea that challenges something stated in the “best practices” document. Which do you follow? Who do you trust? Odds are that you or your team member has much more insight into the issue than a document. However, when adhering directly to one of these documents, it becomes way too easy to ignore the opposing opinions altogether and do what is recommended in the document.

Now, I’m not saying that “best practice” documents are complete garbage. Often they contain many helpful tips and tricks for getting the most out of whatever they are written about. Yet, it is important to remember they are not the bible. To summarize my feelings on the subject, context is everything, and if there’s one thing “best practice” documents lack, it is context.