Wednesday, January 9, 2008

The Myth of Best Practices

I constantly hear representations of things that are trumpeted as "best practice". The theory behind most of the trumpeting is that if you implement best practices that worked well for someone else in their context, you too too derive spectacular benefits. I almost expect the pitch to include a set of free steak knives for the next 10 callers.

Save your money.

Save your money that is until you perform a small sanity check. Here is the sanity check. Ask yourself what the critical success factors were that enabled the supposed best practice to work. For instance; How did the best practice resonate with the purpose of the company? How did the best practice fit, support and enhance the brand image of the company? How about the long term... how did the best practice create a substantial benefit for the long range intention of the company? Further, what goal did the best practice help achieve? To what leading indicator of success did the best practice contribute improved performance? Now for the bonus questions. How did the best practice fit and support the company culture? How well did the best practice aid the organizational structure in a way that made work easier to accomplish?

Now if you have all these answers and you are satisfied that what you have going on in your organization is a match for all that context, then fire away. Simply pick up the latest whiz bang book of Jack Welch success stories and go for it.

On the other hand, maybe you should think that over. Perhaps this helps: Before a best practice becomes a best practice, it is a leading practice. A leading practice is something that works quite well in some contexts but has not reached a fad stage. It is innovative. Very few organizations do it. These organizations benefit greatly. Portfolio management with full resource reconciliation and strategic alignment is a leading practice right now. Not many organizations do it, few do it well and those that do reap a huge benefit. Before something is a leading practice, it was an experiment. Before that it was a theory, before that it was an idea. Before that it was an observation. The person that observed that pieces of paper that relate to each other had no way of being temporarily fastened, had an idea about how to fix the problem, generated a theory of making a device to accomplish such a thing, then began to experiment with various means that ended up in the first paper clip did not start with best practices. They started with observations and the generation of theory and immediate action to try things on a small scale. Innovation is not well suited to the adoption of best practices. Efficiency is well suited to the adoption of best practices. Real value in an organization cannot be created through efficiency alone. Innovation is the only thing that can do that.

The constant hammering of best practices in an organization can put you on the cover of Business Week just like it did for 3M. 3M implemented 6 Sigma to the point of almost killing the most precious asset it owned... its innovation culture.

So if you have a bunch of consultants running around your organization implementing best practices, perhaps you should check out if they are curing you or killing you. Perhaps what you need is a better set of observations, ideas, theories, experiments and leading practices

Just a thought.

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