June 04, 2010

Best Practices: The Fallacy of “Plug and Play”

The secret to a good golf game is simple: watch the best players in the world, learn what they do, and simply apply those techniques to your own game. That will make you just as good as them, right?

Of course not. There are too many other factors at play to make it that simple: natural athleticism and work ethic to name two. Yet, when nonprofits think about best practices and how to integrate them, they often commit the same fallacy: just do what the successful nonprofit does and we will be just as successful.

The reality is that a practice or program that works in one setting is not guaranteed to deliver the same results in another. As a practitioner of developmental evaluation (an approach championed by Michael Quinn Patton, a guru to many in the field), I find myself cautioning nonprofits against the hyper-optimism that often accompanies the launch of a new initiative, especially one that comes with “proven results.” My caution is rooted not in pessimism but in recognition that program success is a result of numerous factors, the most significant being the quality of local implementation and, more to the point of this article, the context within which the program operates

In simple terms, a best practice is so because of everything else that is going on around it.

“Why” Before “How”

A nonprofit driven by the plug and play fallacy believes that the most important task in the replication of the program is to learn “how” to do it. I refer to this approach as the learn — apply scenario. For many, it is a cruel lesson learned when program success lags behind expectations. After all, the model was researched, the money was secured, and the program was implemented “by the book.” From there, it was simply a matter of applying the how-to knowledge and waiting for the results to pour in. Unfortunately, when the results are not achieved, too many are left scratching their heads wondering what went wrong or what they could have missed in the application of their learning.

What is missed by so many nonprofits in learn – apply scenario is consideration of why the practice was able to deliver results in its original setting. To instill this mindset, I introduce a more comprehensive and context-sensitive approach to program planning, which look like this:

Learn — InterpretAdapt — Apply

The need to learn about a best practice or program remains essential. Before deciding to adopt a practice, nonprofits need to delve beyond the executive summaries to understand what was done specifically, to whom, and which practices can be linked to the desired results. There simply is no substitute for this. However, before jumping to the application phase, nonprofits need to detour through the intervening steps of interpretation and adaptation. It is here where context demands the spotlight.

To interpret is to consider the original program context and asks the question ‘why is it working there.’ More specifically, the interpretation phase focuses attention on the conditions under which the program produced its initial success, including the resources – human, financial, and cultural – that were available; the obstacles that had to be overcome; and the synergy resulting from its interaction with other programs, to name a few.

Conversely, to adapt is to consider the best practice within your own context by asking, ‘what will work here.’ The amount of adaptations necessary to fit the program to your context will vary and depends on a number of factors. Key factors include characteristics of the people you plan to serve, the program capacity of the provider organization, the presence of partners, and the trickiest of all, the presence of a culture that supports change and innovation.

Principles Before Practices

The approach I am advocating represents a fundamental shift in our thinking about program replication. Rather than thinking of best practices, which implies mere mimicking of other organizations, sometimes we are better served by thinking in terms of effective principles, which introduces the importance of context and which, eventually, can lead to more effective outcomes as a result.

I saw this at play with a cluster of grantee schools involved in a foundation-invited initiative to enhance parental involvement in low performing schools. Each took its turn describing what it had done and what its results were. The activities were varied – one instituted a parental advisory council, one tagged parent-teacher discussions onto student performance events, and one started sending home a newsletter that focused on home-based literacy enrichment activities. In short, each school had found an approach that worked for them, mostly through a series of trial and error efforts.

The grand mistake would have been for the schools to leave the meeting thinking, ‘we should do that.’ Rather, the more helpful take-aways from the meeting are more general in nature: 1) parental involvement is more likely if parents have a say in how and when they are involved; and 2) new approaches to parental involvement are more likely to take hold if they are integrated into existing structures and practices rather than if they require the creation of something new.

Imagine the creative practices that can be developed by any school based on these two principles. And the good news for golfers is that even if you don’t have the athleticism and work ethic of Tiger Woods, you can still improve your game by remaining balanced over the ball and slowing your tempo — the core principles of an effective golf swing.

Need Additional Assistance?

If you are interested in going deeper into your nonprofit strategy or if you wish to review your organizational strategy more broadly, click the link below to schedule a 30-minute phone or zoom consultation with Mike Stone.

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