Best Practices. Even the term sounds like easy success, doesn’t it? What could possibly go wrong if you implement what works for other organizations in your own organization? Yes, the lure of proven strategies has a very strong appeal. But I’m going to challenge folks to stuff some beeswax in their ears when they hear the sirens sing of the temptations of best practices. Like Odysseus discovered, the song is enchanting until you realize that it leads to a grisly demise.
You may be asking whether I’m overblowing the dangers of best practices. You may have used best practices in the past and they’re working out just fine for you and your organization. To you I say “Congratulations!” and then, “Where’s your next great idea coming from?” Far from encouraging organizations to embrace their inherent uniqueness and potential greatness, best practices merely condone a smallness that’s ultimately uninspiring to your customers and employees.
Best Practices encourage the belief that there is just one true path.
Ever hear a consultant or industry peer tout best practices like they were written in stone and brought down from the mountain by Moses himself? They preach that all someone has to do is simply install these practices into their organization and they’ll score easy rewards. They’ll argue quite strongly that to ignore best practices is to needlessly “recreate the wheel” and waste valuable resources. It’s enough to make you feel like a sucker if you don’t immediately sign up to learn as many best practices as possible. But let’s be frank…the sucker turns out to be the blind adherent to the religion of best practices. Hopefully, this isn’t you.
One typical response I get from folks in favor of best practices is that you can take a practice and then blend it into your organization’s unique situation. This may be true, except how many times do organizations really put this notion to work? It’s kind of like buying an antique dresser that needs some hard work to really show off its value. You get it home but instead of immediately getting to work at stripping, sanding, and staining the piece, you leave it in the garage as a “someday” project because all of that refinishing work is time-consuming. Five years later, you donate the dresser to Goodwill in the same state in which you bought it. So much for that “valuable” purchase.
Best Practices instill the notion that solutions are out there.
As someone who strongly believes that most organizations grossly underutilize the expertise and knowledge of its employees, the notion that innovative new ideas and answers to thorny problems exist out there drives me crazy. This lack of confidence in and understanding of the organization’s internal resources is a chronic failure of management. Rather than wondering what new practices a competitor is using or new ideas a leader in another industry is generating, get curious about building innovation inside your organization.
So toss away all those advertisements that want you to learn how to do things the Toyota way. Guide your consultant toward the door if they insist that their new program works for companies like Microsoft, Proctor and Gamble, and Home Depot. And for goodness sake, stop focusing so much of your time on benchmarks just so you can compare your organization to others in your industry.
Encourages mimicry and mediocrity.
Finally, since when does being the best mean being just like everyone else? When you buy into best practices, you’re accepting the notion that it’s advantageous to your long-term business health to do things like everyone else. And you’re damning your business to a legacy of ordinariness. How long do you think you’ll last with that type of mentality?
Instead, consider the hard work of being remarkable. One of my inspirations in my own attack on best practices is Jeff De Cagna. A few years ago, he wrote a great blogpost called Be Original. It’s aimed at non-profit professional associations but the core of his message applies across any organization: “True success and true greatness come from daring to do what others can’t do or won’t try.”
So, the next time someone approaches you with the benefits of best practices, ask yourself, “Do I want my organization to be replicable or remarkable?” Your answer will speak volumes about your own leadership.