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Leadership | Management

Why Best Practices – Aren’t

Startup Business Team Brainstorming on Meeting Workshop

My thesis is a simple one; Don’t copy – create. Don’t benchmark against others – benchmark against a unique and better version of you. Don’t compete against how others do things, compete against your own thinking. More than 20 years ago I coined the term next” practices in an effort to focus people forward in their thinking. I’ve always wondered why any business would want to adopt the same practices their competitors utilize? Don’t embrace the practices of your peers, but rather innovate around them and improve upon them to unlock hidden value and create advantage in the market. Put simply; don’t copy – create. Be disruptive in your approach and don’t fall into the trap of doing something in a particular fashion just because others do it that way – think “next” practices not best practices. Here’s the thing – best practices maintain the status quo and next practices shatter it.

There is substantial downside risk to anything labeled “best” practices. I have actually come to cringe every time I hear someone use the phrase in an authoritarian manner as a justification for the position they happen to be evangelizing. One of the most common reasons for pursuing best practices in a given area is to avoid having to “reinvent the wheel.” Think about it like this – if nobody ever reinvented the wheel, they’d still be made from stone. One of the most difficult areas for executives to wrap their mind around is how to unlearn legacy based thinking. Maintenance doesn’t lead you forward – creation does. In the text that follows I’ll ask you to consider my arguments for disregarding the myth of best practices.

Let me begin with a bold statement that I’m sure will unleash the wrath of many: “There is no such thing as best practices.” The reality is best practices are nothing more than disparate groups of methodologies, processes, rules, concepts and theories that attained a level of success in certain areas, and because of those successes, have been deemed as universal truths able to be applied anywhere and everywhere. Just because someone says something doesn’t mean it’s true. Moreover, just because “Company A” had success with a certain initiative doesn’t mean that “Company B” can plug-and-play the same process and expect the same outcome. There is always room for new thinking and innovation, or at least there should be.

Let’s use an example of a common problem that most businesses face at some point in their lifecycle (if not at multiple points), which is needing to implement a certain application or toolset to automate an existing manual process. Okay, my question is this: What constitutes best practices in this situation? Does the company purchase an off-the-shelf solution, utilize a SaaS, ASP or cloud-based solution, or embark upon developing a custom application? Moreover, if they decide to develop the application should this be done internally with existing staff, or outsourced? And if outsourced, will it be done domestically or offshore, and who will manage the process? Oh, and what about development methodology? I could go on ad-nauseam with this line of thinking, but I’m sure you get the point by now. The reality is you can find someone who will tell you any of the options mentioned above constitutes best practices – so who is right and who is wrong?

To be clear, I’m not recommending a blatant disregard for existing methodologies, but rather a very critical eye as to whether or not they are appropriate beyond the fact they’re already in use. I’m a firm believer challenging the status quo (especially the status quo surrounding best practices) usually leads to very fertile ground. It has been my experience whenever methodologies become productized, objectivity is removed from the equation. Whenever you are being pitched a product as a solution, I suggest you exercise caution. Business is fluid, dynamic, and ever-evolving, which means static advice is at best short lived, but more often is simply incongruous with the very nature of business itself. Don’t allow someone to cram your needs into their canned sets of rules and processes, rather find someone who will create the right solution in response to meeting your specific needs.

My experience has been consistent over the years – whenever a common aspect of business turns into a “practice area” trouble is on the horizon. Before you know it the herd mentality of the legions of politically correct consultants and advisers use said practice area as a platform to be evangelized. When this happens, the necessity of common sense and the reality of what actually works often times gets thrown out the window as a trade-off for promotional gain. It is precisely the dispensing of one-size fits all advice that has allowed the ranks of consultants to swell to historical proportions. After all, if you can apply someone else’s theory in a vacuum it lowers the barrier to entry doesn’t it? Labeling something as “best” practices is not a substitute for wisdom, discernment, discretion, subject matter expertise, intellect, creativity or any of the other qualities I value in an advisor.

Popular business axioms and management theories are thrown around in such cavalier fashion these days they can actually result in flawed decisioning. It is for precisely this reason that I believe too much common management wisdom is not wise at all, but instead flawed knowledge based on a misunderstanding or misapplication of “best practices” that often constitutes poor, incomplete or outright obsolete thinking.

Bottom line – just because a professor says it’s so, a consultant recommends it, a book has been written on it, or a product has been developed for it, doesn’t mean that whatever “it” is constitutes the right option for you. On occasions to numerous to count, I have personally witnessed companies that embarked upon an enterprise-wide initiative because they were sold on “best practices” and after two years into a multi-million dollar implementation without any meaningful benefit realized purchasing a product as a solution absolutely did not constitute best practices. Smart leaders don’t play catch-up – they play get ahead and stay ahead.

As always, I welcome your comments below. Thoughts?

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