Better ways to think about “best practice”

graphic of cynefin framework

A quick Google search of “nonprofit best practice” yields collections of resources from our sector’s leading providers of quality resources. When nonprofit board chair or Executive Director calls or attends a training, they regularly ask what “best practice” is on any given topic: leadership, finance, or fundraising. These are questions worth considering, yet the answers don’t always satisfy because they come up against reality or simplify complicated circumstances. Solutions depend on context. The concept of “best practice” is flawed.

The Cynefin Framework offers us a helpful alternative. Rather than cast all challenges into one bucket where there is a “best” way of solving them, we can hone our practice thinking about the problems themselves.  Is the solution obvious, complicated, complex, or yet to be discovered? Is our job one of finding an existing answer or crafting a new solution based on the context in which it lives? How do we make space for sense-making as a core function in solving problems?

The video about the Framework featuring David Snowden is worth the 12 minutes—it is relevant in thinking about nonprofits, learning and the world around us right now. The questions it stirred for me:

  • How do we sort problems so we quickly solve the obvious ones and focus on the complicated, complex, or chaotic, all of which need more time, expertise, and connections?
  • How do we hone our “sense-making” abilities since this step is key in all four systems of the framework? How do make sure we don’t make sense of a situation based on our preference, history or bias?
  • Nonprofits exist within constraints, some from outside organizations and some self-imposed. How can we be nimble in how we think about rules (“governing constraints”) vs. “rules of thumb” (“enabling constraints”)? How do we encourage a culture of adaptation and change?

I’m curious what you think about this model and how you might apply it. Let me know!

Published by Nancy

I work at the intersection of learning, nonprofits, and leadership. I am a teacher, instructional designer, and nonprofit person who has worn every hat possible. I regular write, speak, and consult on learning strategy, design, and leadership.

2 thoughts on “Better ways to think about “best practice”

  1. Hi, Nancy – this is a provocative and useful framework for thinking about how to approach problem-solving. And I appreciate your question about how we make sure we don’t try to make sense of a situation based on our preference, history or bias. That resonates strongly for me with the idea of adaptive leadership, and the practice of looking for underlying issues rather than focusing on symptoms in a problematic situation.

    1. Thank you, Randy. And it invites the question for me who else needs to look at those underlying issues to expand perspectives.

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