Best Practice

It’s been two weeks, which means it’s time to talk about stakeholders again. I was going to hem and haw and showcase some stuff, and I still might, but I kind of want to skip to the good part. Well, the part for you to chew over. When last we left the stakeholder story, the big question was a how question. How do we balance the stake of one person or group of people ¬†against that of another? What’s the solution, the maxim or piece of advice that makes it all simple?

There isn’t one. Yeah, I did that. It was too tempting. But there isn’t something that works for everyone in all situations. You saw that when I talked about utilitarianism, deontology, the golden rule and virtue ethics as advice. These are rules that have stood up for hundreds of years, in some case thousands, and there’s still all these weird corner cases that come up where it doesn’t apply properly. Not to mention there’s the problem of how to keep people accountable, and why they should do it at all when it’s to their advantage not to. That’s a big problem. It’s easy to follow the rules when the rules work out in your favour, but they’re against you, and there’s no one to catch you, that’s when you’re really tested.

I don’t have an answer. But I do have an idea. A ghost of an answer. Best practice. I’ll frame it as advice.

“Always act in a way that you would readily and justifiably endorse as a best practice.”

It’s action-guiding. It doesn’t just tell you to act, but how and when. It’s directive, because it includes an imperative. It’s ethical, because it doesn’t help you become a better serial killer. But is it followable? That’s the tricky part.

One of the things we have little trouble doing is imagining how things could be better. Not just that we’d be better off with a bigger car, or if we rode our bike more often, but all the things we could have said or done. Anyone who says they do their utmost in every moment of every day is pretty much full of crap. But there’s a difference between having a vision of how things would be better, and having an idea of a best practice. Let’s use an example.

Falling ManMy town is covered in ice right now. Tomorrow morning I’m walking to work, and I see an old lady slip and fall. My question is, “Should I go and help her up?” Maybe the answer seems like an obvious yes, but let’s pretend it’s not obvious. Let’s say I’m in a hurry, I’m worried that I’ll slip too, and I don’t really like old people because they remind me of my own mortality. They make me uncomfortable. None of that means I shouldn’t help her up, though. They’re just facts. The question is what do I think is the best practice? What would I, hearing someone else recount the story, say they should have done?

Maybe I say they’re right not to help her up. But is that justified? If it were me who’d fallen down, I’d want someone to help me up, especially if I might have hurt myself. If there was a chance they’d slip, or they were in a hurry, or even if I just plain made them uncomfortable, I’d still want them to help me up. If I saw someone walk past me, I’d get a little mad. “They shouldn’t do that,” I’d say. “It’s not right.” If I think that, it means I don’t endorse walking past as a best practice. It means I should get my ass across the street and help that old lady up, because that’s what I really think the best thing to do is.

How does this relate to stakeholders? I’m glad you asked. The old lady example is a pretty straightforward one, but decisions with a lot of stakeholders can get really complicated really fast. The same rules can apply, though. For each decision, we can organize a best practice based on our values, and find a justification for it that stands up to scrutiny. In the old lady case, my justification could be stated as “I should help a person up even if they make me uncomfortable because I’d want them to help me up.” Some justifications are better than others. Some practices are better than others. This is true for pretty much everything. There are best practices to baking, to marketing, to business, and to being a friend. This is the same idea.

This isn’t an answer, it’s an inkling. It’s a question that might lead you to some answers. I’m going to talk about it some more, but I want to leave you with a question. Is it a best practice to make a point of improving your best practices?

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