Setting ever more rigid parameters and measurement metrics for a process can feel like a means for continuous improvement, narrowing everything down to what works. But applying ‘Best Practice’ to everything is to assume that everything is and will always stay the same even though the law of entropy and insistence of cliche point out: the only constant is change. Applying the thinking of Best Practice to anything but the most simple of processes means that everyone will be working hard at making something more and more efficient that is increasingly the wrong thing to do. You could call it The Best Practice Blues. If we were to write that song, what might the process teach us?

Muddy-Bo-and-Little-Walter-300x190

When you listen to the blues, you know what’s coming next.  Every blues tune follows a similar structure and the majority a 12 bar chord progression. It’s a simple formula based on the I, IV and V chords of a key. That may sound technical, but it’s not complicated. For example, take the key of C: C is the I chord (or tonic). Now say your alphabet and three letters later you have the IV (or subdominant) chord of F. The next letter of the alphabet is the dominant (V) chord of G.

Now all you have to do is arrange them in an order over 12 bars

I

I

I  

I  

IV

IV

I

I

V

V

I

I

Giving you:

C

C

C

C

F

F

C

C

G

G

C

C

Take any key, apply the same order and you’ll have a recognisable blues tune that anyone will be able to hum along to, even before they’ve finished hearing it through once.

How about some lyrics. The lyrics and lyrical melody are arranged over three lines and also follow conventions, most commonly repeating the first line as the second with a variation in the third. Blues were often improvised, and this gave singers time to think. So, for example:

I woke up this mornin’ and things just gettin’ worse

Oh yes I woke up this mornin’ and things just gettin’ worse

I tried applying that Best Practice and it made my life a mess

And them’s the blues.

Blues evolved first as a rhythmic form. The only instruments available to the slaves taken to America were drums and then a simple whistle to carry a melody that would be taken up vocally  and whose style evolved from its African musical roots to the simple chord pattern described above…and then stopped. Because that was enough. It was a structure that worked, it was pleasing to the ear, immediately familiar and easy to pick up yet involved enough variation in its few elements to offer a huge variety of execution and sub-genres. There’s 16 Bar Blues, 4 Bar Quick Blues, traditional acoustic Delta and Country Blues which was electrified by Muddy Waters and then migrated north following the jobs to Chicago and Detroit to become the more sophisticated, polished Urban Blues. And then as Muddy reminds us:

‘the Blues had a baby and they called it Rock and Roll’.

(and pop and jazz). Just following the 12 bar blues progression you get to Rock Around the Clock, Shake Rattle and Roll and call someone a Hound Dog. You also get to travel on James Brown’s Night Train; where The Beatles remind you that You Can’t Buy Me Love;  but you can cheer yourself up with a singalong to Mungo Jerry’s In The Summertime or dream of a Prince’s Kiss. Even if you flick on the TV there it is in the de ne ne ne Batman! theme tune.

Does this simple set of rules and explosion of creativity help us think about an alternative to Best Practice?

The structure provides space for a story but what that is, you decide – it’s your song, your story. If you follow the basic rules, it will work just fine. As you become more adept, you can begin playing with slight tweaks, seeking out recognised variations that have been developed by others and which – if applied with a little care and experience – just work. And when you become more expert still you can play around with the structure and experiment yourself, creating new standard forms or, ultimately, innovation to a degree where you create a whole new genre. If your story and style resonate, others will share, copy, spread and build on your success.

If you’re not very musical, the application of a pattern or structure that just works is itself a recurring theme. From Shakespeare’s favourite Iambic Pentameter to Japanese Haiku, verse is the effect of simple rules on words. Try Haiku, a verse based on the arrangement of a certain number of syllables in a pattern – most commonly 17 syllables, arranged 5-7-5.

Best practice hems in

People can imagine more

Set them free with Blues

Here’s a crazy thought, why not just restrict all communications amongst a group of people to 140 characters. I mean, such a terse frame can’t possibly spawn too rich an environment but you never know, the novelty might last as much as a week or two.

The theme here is that rules can become the challenge to which people rise, inspired in their creativity to wring from a format nothing that anyone might have predicted, least of all the person setting the rules. Artists have long used this knowledge to inspire. The question then becomes, in formalising a process or a response to an opportunity, how can you create a set of rules that inspires rather than curtails? It demands in the rule-setter a degree of trust that can feel risky (and is why so often people make the fundamental mistake of using a measurement as a target – which immediately invalidates the measure). The whole point is that people will use your rules in a way that will be theirs not yours. You can’t pick up ‘what works’ and transpose it to different areas or organisations – this is the fallacy of much that is tagged Best Practice. The story developed within the framework belongs to the people that created it, resonates with that specific group in a way that an outsider will struggle to get to grips with. The Blues emerged in a culture that was deeply religious and violently oppressed. If you think Jelly Roll Morton really liked his pudding, Tutti Frutti is a song about Italian ice cream and My Ding-a-Ling celebrates campanology, then you’re missing a code that others spoke as a first language. The Blues often tell a timeless story about how someone’s woman or man done them wrong. On the face of it individual stories of luckless love. For workers in the cotton fields of the deep south, though, this was the code of proud defiance.

Do you have a common intractable problem? Try this method based on the powers of three.  Can you think of 6 rules that can guide how people deal with the problem. These might seem arbitrary or unnecessary or restrictive  – that’s fine –  but none of them can be a measure of performance. Give the 6 rules to 3 different teams and tell them they can do whatever else they like to address the problem so long as they follow the rules. After 9 weeks, bring the teams together to talk about their experience. Collect 12 stories to share with everyone else in the organisation.