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Are Best Practices Really The Best?

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When trying to tackle a common problem, or plan a fresh idea, referring to a best practice might be something that seems like an excellent convention to follow.

Wikipedia defines a best practice as:

A best practice is a method or technique that has been generally accepted as superior to any alternatives because it produces results that are superior to those achieved by other means or because it has become a standard way of doing things, e.g., a standard way of complying with legal or ethical requirements.

Which, in most cases, would be the recommended approach to take.

For example, when I complete this blog post and am happy with its contents, I will spend a certain amount of time editing, proofreading and spell checking what I’ve written, and possibly ask someone else to go over it with a fresh set of eyes 👀 Even though some errors will remain (I am only human after all), I am following a best practice that can help catch most of my writing mishaps.

Which for my needs is perfect. I could tailor the process a bit, maybe ask a few more people to read over my writing or structure my writing differently. But I see no need to do anything to elaborate on my use case.

The best practice fulfills my needs perfectly.

When a best practice, isn’t the best

Another of my hobbies (which I’m sure most readers share) is programming and creating digital solutions to real-world problems. From creating a personalized website, learning a fresh piece of technology, or even constructing an API to practice my test automation abilities. There a few things I love more than opening up my favorite IDE and allowing the ideas stored in my mind to flow into the lines of code on the screen.

When I first started out with programming and desired to get a foothold in the skill to enable me to go onto greater things. I actively sought out best practices and advice of those who had gone before me. What better way to advance after all than to stand on the shoulders of giants.

One of these best practices was to seek out and join a community of like-minded people. Which if you are trying to learn a new skill at the moment, I can not recommend enough. Not only will you be able to discover fresh ideas and insights to keep the momentum on your learning. But you will also have opportunities to cement your own understanding through online discussions, debates and targeted practice sessions.

Once I was beyond the basics and Hello World applications were a thing of the past (just kidding… I still use Hello World in my learning). I quickly discovered that when I came up against a problem I needed to solve. The methods that people were offering to me as solutions were not applicable to my use case.

And this is the problem I have with best practices.

What’s best for you, might not be best for me

Best practices most of the time focus on a unique implementation and rarely apply outside of it or across multiple disciplines. Best practices for writing poetry might not apply to novel writing.

Instead, best practices can often be the reason behind many people not wanting to reinvent the wheel, even if it is made out of stone. And those following a best practice can be susceptible to having their thinking process pigeon-holed and creativity stifled.

To be clear though, I am not dismissing all best practices as creations of others that are not always applicable to others. There are plenty of universal examples of best practices in the form of mnemonics or mental models that anyone can take advantage of and see results from.

I am saying though that the notion of a best practice does not exist.

Practices do not standstill

Let’s say you come up with an alternative way of automating a set of manual test cases and you are ecstatic because the automated process saves you 25% of your time. You hail this new technique as revolutionary, the way of the future! 💫

But then one day, a change is made and your way of doing things no longer functions how it did before. So you make a few changes, update your understanding and create a newer, better version.

This is just an example of how things move in the actual world and how the notion of a best practice should develop with it. We don’t think of something, create an appropriate solution or optimal way of doing something and then stick with that forever.

People’s practices strengthen and move on with new understanding. Ever being recreated and rarely stand still like a mountain or piece of architecture. What works today isn’t guaranteed to work tomorrow, and neither should we expect it to.

So, what is the antidote?

If you are recommended a best practice to follow or adopt, ask yourself – Is this the best solution to my problem? Or the best for most people?

Most of the time, a best practice is just a rule of thumb or a guideline that you may want to use a base for your solution. You should of course use the methods and techniques of others that have come before you. But do not be pressured into following the rules to the letter.

Be disruptive, keep an eye out for inefficiencies and come up with your own best practice. And be sure to share what works for you with others, so we can all learn and grow 🌳

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About the author

Kevin Tuck

Kevin is a freelance software tester, blogger and open source contributor. With multiple years of software testing experience behind him. He has been able to collaborate and implement successful testing strategies for projects covering web and mobile platforms. He enjoys building automated test frameworks as well a being a life long learner and avid reader. Feel free to connect with him on Twitter @keva161

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