Best practices are those methods and techniques that deliver a desired outcome as quickly, cheaply and reliably as possible. Every field of human endeavor, from mundane household tasks to sophisticated technological processes, has its own set of best practices.
Best practices are the accumulated wisdom of years, decades or even centuries of human experience. Often the result of pain and suffering, these prescriptions tend to follow a simple and practical formula: do this to avoid that.
Doctors wash their hands after examining a patient, to prevent the spread of disease. Runners tie their shoelaces, to avoid tripping and falling on their face. Employers check references before extending a job offer. These best practices remind us how to approach a particular task, and why we should favor one tactic to another.
What then are traditions? According to the dictionary, traditions are beliefs or customs that have been handed down from one generation to the next, by word of mouth or practice. We can define traditions more precisely by comparing them to the concept of best practices:
A tradition is a best practice for which the rationale has been lost, obscured or forgotten (or which had no rationale to begin with). Traditions remind us how to act, but not why to act. They imply that we should repeat what has been done before, simply because it was done before. It is a perfectly valid approach—if circumstances never evolve, communication never distorts the message, and memories never fade.
Tradition and The Telephone Game
The Telephone game—also known as Pass It On or Chinese Whispers—illustrates the difficulty in transmitting precise information via human tradition. In this game, a specific phrase travels through a long line of children, whispered from one ear to the next. Distorting the phrase intentionally violates the spirit of the game. Yet even when everyone plays by the rules, the phrases at each end of the line often differ.
An error detection and correction mechanism is essential to the accurate transmission of information. Error detection is built into the foundations of the Internet; the absence of such a scheme defines the Telephone game.
Best practices also contain an error detection mechanism: technique and purpose support each other. If one is changed inadvertently during transmission, the other can sometimes repair it. For example, you can understand when I ask you to rerax your regs, if I explain that doing so will improve your mobirity. (If not, try reading it aloud.)
Traditions include no such protection, and as the Telephone game shows, they inevitably shift from their original forms. Herein lies the problem of so-called traditional dojo, dojang or kwoon. When you celebrate tradition, you are really celebrating purposeless and corrupted imitation. It is neither a guarantee of fidelity nor of quality. Following tradition is among the worst practices for managing a school of martial arts.
Fortunately, it’s never too late to begin the search for purpose. Searching itself is the original best practice.