According to the dictionary, “best” is defined as something that is “better than all others”. Seems simple enough and we throw the word around all the time without necessarily appreciating all the various flavors of “best” there is, and if we’re really using it properly.
At the very heart of defining “best” in more detail, I think it’s a good starting point to divide “best” into its objective meaning versus its subjective meaning. The objective form means that you can clearly state your objective, for example, that you’re looking for the most profitable solution or producing a product at the least cost. The second part is developing a means to achieve that objective that others can review and agree that it indeed results in the optimum answer. For example, at work we have a model that processes customer orders, dates needed, transportation costs and machine capacities to produce a solution that maximizes profit within those constraints. That model uses a branch of mathematics, linear programming, that will produce the optimal answer. Not saying that the inputs themselves are always right or that our model might not have room for improvement, but I can reasonably argue that we get the “best” answer. Room for debate exists, but not all that much.
On the other side of “best” is its subjective meaning, and that’s open to the wide variety of human opinion. Where is the “best” city to live? Who was the “best” basketball player ever to play the game? What is the “best” wine to serve with chicken on a cool spring evening? You have your choices, and I’ll have mine. But if you ask a million people and tally up all the results for that wine recommendation, you’re more likely to follow the advice of the crowd and not my particular taste for Viognier. I look for the crowd’s opinion of “best” all the time on amazon.com, routinely searching only for products with at least a 4-star rating. But I also read some 5-star and 1-star reviews in detail, looking for some reason a particular product would not fit my particular purpose. The power of collective opinion in helping decide “best” is most useful indeed, as it rarely steers me wrong.
But what really irritates me are people that throw around “best” and can’t explain if they’re using the objective or subjective form, or the type and breadth of peer review defined above. They simply want me to accept their “best” designation without any level of substantiation. When pressed they deliver their finest “deer-in-the-headlights” look. It would be comical if it wasn’t so sad.
So the next time you hear the term “Best practice”, just think “Their favorite pizza”, and you won’t be far off.