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500+ different kinds of hammers and the specificity of practices – no best practices

Henry Petroski tells us in his book on design that “By the latter part of the nineteenth century, some five hundred different types of hammers were being produced in Birmingham, England, alone.” If the market supported such an array of one particular tool, if no one hammer was manifestly the best, if different ones suited different needs, how can law departments today not support as large – actually much larger – an array of management practices? How can the term “best practice” have any credibility?

Success through Failure: the paradox of design (Princeton 2006) by Petroski makes two salient points about the design of anything: (1) it can be improved and (2) failure yields more insights than success precedents. To his first point, you can sharpen any practice in any law department. A “best practice” is like infinity: describe a practice and anyone can go higher with it. Regarding failure, if we were to assume some practice were optimal, acting on that assumption will assuredly breed disappointment eventually because we would not learn thereafter. Only change, with the inevitable and occasional disappointments or failures, leads to continual upgrading.

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