The value of ‘tweaking’: the real learning from best practice

In all my years of urban regeneration, working in the community and in organisations I was encouraged to learn from best practice, and often tried to transfer it wholesale into the day job or project. Often this was from pressure of Government policy, senior management and requirements from funders for the publication of best practice guides as a project outcome. Conference programmes were also littered with workshops extolling best practice projects through a mantra of success.

After a while I noticed two things: one was a personal resistance to reading and transferring best practice; secondly, there seemed to be a paucity of best practice presentations demonstrating the barriers, cock-ups or challenges experienced in the journey. Rarely were the real learnings shared – nobody told you how failure was handled.

My personal resistance was founded on:

  1. A realisation that best practice emerges because of local circumstance, timing, and human beings. A community and/ or organisation has to be in a place, environment or at time when the work will flower – the timing has to be right and the right resources in place. Most of all, the human skills of relationships, passion and working within a culture of encouragement (which I’ll talk about in the next blog) has to be present. It’s rare that all of these are easily transferable to different situations;
  2. A belief that it wasn’t just a matter of delivering it with no awareness of both the local circumstance it came from, and where it was going to.


Once I’d come to terms with the concerns, there was still a belief in the importance of best practice – primarily in two areas. Firstly, if best practice included observations about what didn’t work and – more valuably – when it shared learning and was honest about the challenges; the second observation was that elements could be transferred and adapted if there were explanations of local commitment – a culture of encouragement plus the capacity to adapt and evolve.

Honest, shared learnings were further enhanced when an Appreciative Inquiry approach was used as a basis for the case studies, giving an understanding of the strengths and qualities in place, and ready to be built upon.

There are good examples in the publications Appreciative Inquiry: change at the speed of imagination and Positive psychology at work: how positive leadership and Appreciative Inquiry create inspiring organisations.*

Recently, in research for the next Appreciating People workbook, on strategic and business planning, I discovered the value and importance of ‘tweaking’. For me, this is how best practice can be transferred and built upon. Reading Paul Kennedy’s new book Engineers of Victory: the problem solvers who turned the tide in World War Two, his chapter Problem solving in history describes well the importance of ‘tweaking’. Although the book concentrates on World War Two, giving examples of incremental change, he provides a couple of non-military examples.

One is a contemporary example quoting from a Malcolm Gladwell article in The New Yorker, following the death of Apple founder Steve Jobs. In the article, Gladwell argued that Steve Jobs was not an inventor of a machine or an insight that changed the world; few human beings are (except perhaps Leonardo de Vinci and Edison). Instead, he was an adopter of other people’s early clumsy inventions and partial insights, which he built on, modified and constantly improved. He was a ‘tweaker’ – and his true genius was to push for ever-greater increases in the effectiveness of his company’s products.

Returning to WWII, how did the P51 Mustang fighters develop from short range, low altitude and underpowered fighter to one of the most effective long-range fighters ever produced? Answer, it was tweaked by lots of people working together, adapting and problem solving with a design which inherently good but needed to be built upon.


Here are some useful principles to follow in adapting best practice:

  1. Find out the local circumstances and the learning achieved
  2. Understand the human skills that were used – are they transferable?
  3. Consider what could be adapted and tweaked
  4. Is it really transferable, or was it unique to its time and place?
  5. Think and reflect before acting



Reflect on the questions below, either by yourself, or in conversation with a friend or colleague:

Q1. Think of time or experience when best practice was shared… Did it include the learning achieved? What had to be changed? What were the local circumstances that provided success? How was failure resolved?

Q2. In any example of best practice you’ve seen, have human skills such as passion, encouragement and teamwork been displayed?

Q3. Think of a time when you have successfully ‘tweaked’ an idea, project or example to suit local circumstances. What did you do and how did you adapt?

Tim Slack


  • Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the speed of imagination

(Second edition)
Jane Magruder Watkins, Bernard Mohr and Ralph Kelly: Pfeiffer 2011

  • Positive Psychology at Work – How Appreciative Inquiry creates inspiring organisations

     Sarah Lewis: Wiley Blackwell 2011

  • Engineers of Victory – the problem solvers who turned the tide in the Second World War

     Paul Kennedy: Allen Lane 2013