Book Review: The Heretic's Guide to Best Practices

3 minute read
Mike Ferrara avatar

Have you ever wondered why projects continue to fail miserably even when you throw plenty of PM hours towards them to prevent that from happening? How about design meetings that never get anywhere, because logical conversation is stifled?

This is something that I deal with every day in my practice, andit’s a problem I’ve been trying to wrap my head around for years.  If you just stood up and yelled “Yes!” to the above questions, then youneed to rather quickly read The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices. Youwill not regret it.

Wicked Problems

The authors, Paul Culmsee and Kailash Awati, set out to address the notion of being able to make sense of “wicked problems” – problems that are difficult to solve due to complex and shifting requirements. This ability, sense-making, is the inspiration for this book. The concept of a wicked problem is used in the book to show the many failures in recent history at trying to tame these beasts.

Best Practices or Empty Platitudes?

With that said, the title of the book is implying that best practices are not always what they seem. So how does that tie in to wicked problems? The authors make the case that solving wicked problems is near impossible due to the nature in which we attempt to try to solve them in the first place. To prove that point, the authors set out to discover all that they could on the historical methods of modern project management and organizational change. They provide a concise and digestible account of the history and how those methods became the “best practices” for managing projects, complex problems and change in general.

One of my favorite parts of the book is the dissection of the organizational “mission statement”. You know those often bogus paragraphs somewhere on a company’s website that nobody believes? Yeah, those! The extreme use of platitudes with no real measurability has plagued many organizations, like Enron -- an example used in the book.Enron’s mission statement ended with “All business dealings must be conducted in an environment that is open and fair.” Point taken.

Learning Opportunities

In this light, it’s easy to make the connection between best practices and how they have shaped project management. Companies are so used to relying on empty statements to drive change that they have no problem including them in their own mission statements!

Dialogue Mapping

The practical application in this book revolves around the use of a collaborative problem-solving method called Dialogue Mapping. The book provides an extremely thorough commentary on the various ideas for fostering proper dialogue by “creating, developing and nurturing a holding environment”.This leads the authors to divulge a wealth of very proprietary knowledge on mastering the art of Dialogue Mapping through valuable real-world experience.

This information has the ability to truly change the way that you attack complex problems. If you’ve never delved into this before, then it should have a profound impact on you. The skill is so practical; you can apply it to any problem, no matter what the context.


Without question, this book has been the single-most useful business book that I’ve ever read. If you’re someone who frequently deals with the aforementioned wicked problems, then this book is a must read. It has the right amount of academic research and pop culture references to make it a fun and engaging read. The lasting impressions will be a desire to make use of these newly acquired talents in your own work environment.

About the author

Mike Ferrara

Mike Ferrara is a vice president in the Legal Management Consulting practice at Duff & Phelps. He has over 12 years of experience with information systems integration, and he specializes in the Microsoft SharePoint and Autonomy WorkSite platforms.