The Worst Thing about Best Practices

A colleague asked me to review a client proposal and, at first glance, it looked like a winner. The proposal was short, and it laid out the client’s problem in clear, crisp language. Plus, the team was a great match for the project. I thought, how refreshing — a jargon-free, informative proposal.

Then I read the section describing how the team planned to complete the work and groaned inwardly: the project approach was to rely on the use of “best practices.”

“You don’t really mean this, do you?”

“Look, the client says it right here in the request for proposal,” my colleague said. “They asked us to bring best practices to the project. We won’t win the work without them.”

I resisted the urge to scream.

Few consulting “tools” are more widely abused these days than so-called best practices. It’s no wonder most banks, supermarkets, airlines, retailers, and consulting firms look astonishingly similar—they’ve been busy copying each other’s best practices for decades.

It’s no wonder most businesses look all similar—they’ve been copying each other’s best practices… Click To Tweet

What’s most alarming is how ingrained their use has become in the language of consultants and clients. Best practices have joined the long list of meaningless phrases like scalable strategies, seamless integration, and transformational initiatives.

It’s a rare project team that doesn’t roll out the best practices — or that closely related cousin, performance benchmarks. Best practices have become a corporate trump card because they supposedly show the best way to do whatever needs to be done.

Of course, there is value in learning from the experience and success of others. It’s natural for the business community to recognize the innovative solutions or services an organization comes up with to untangle a problem or create a market opportunity. Many organizations are saddled with similar challenges, so copying may seem like the ultimate shortcut to salvation.

United Airlines, for example, saw the potential in what low-cost airlines were doing, so its executives created a new airline, TED, which is a carbon copy of their low-cost competitors’ best practices.

What’s wrong with this picture?

The problem with best practices is this: that approach lulls people into thinking that a best practice really exists that can be successfully transplanted.

Starting any project with a canned solution stifles the innovation clients pay consultants to provide. When you import best practices, the team’s thinking immediately focuses on how to do the work, rather than first addressing what should be done and why. If you start with a pre-determined solution, it’s easy to gloss over more innovative approaches.

Granted, best practices can jog your thoughts and maybe even inspire you. But as a tool for guiding strategic initiatives, it’s a real loser. One company’s best practice can too easily become another company’s sunk cost.

Here are four reasons you should dump best practices:

  1. They rarely work. A company’s best practices work in the context of its business processes, culture, systems, and people. Plucking a best practice and trying to graft it onto another organization will produce unpredictable results.
    In one instance, a company forced its entrepreneurial salespeople to adopt a tightly controlled sales process, with automated tools for all large accounts. The company mandated the new process and system because it was touted as a best practice in sales force management. After a year of trial and error, the company’s salespeople dumped the tool, complaining about declining sales productivity. For the company, it was a multi-million dollar mistake.
  2. It’s a follower’s strategy. In an era of demands for innovative products and services, why give your clients recycled answers? A client that really wants a customer order process that looks like everyone else’s is likely to lose the battle of market differentiation. Relying on best practices will doom your clients to mediocrity in the long run.
    A best practices strategy is a follower’s strategy. Why give your clients recycled answers? Click To Tweet
  3. Change comes from within. People rarely respond well to implementing some other company’s ideas. In fact, having best practices come down from on-high usually causes resentment. Let people create their own solutions using their in-depth knowledge of the company’s customers, suppliers, employees, and processes. That will result in ownership of the ideas and determination to get results.
  4. They don’t come with a manual. Business books and benchmark reports are full of snippets about best practices, yet they rarely explain what to do with them. You may have read that it’s a best practice to process a customer product return in 24 hours, but there’s little guidance for meeting that objective. It’s also quite possible that the organizational change necessary for your client to achieve the goal isn’t even remotely feasible.

So now what?

On your next project, ask your team to put best practices aside, at least at the outset. Direct the team to thoroughly explore what needs to be done and why, before jumping to the question of how you will do it.

Pull out the best practices only after you’ve come up with preliminary ideas for solving the problem. Maybe they will spark concepts you can adapt, and maybe not.

Develop your own best solutions to fit the context of the client’s business. Use another company’s best practices only as a last resort.

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By Michael W. McLaughlin

Michael W. McLaughlin is the coauthor, with Jay Conrad Levinson, of Guerrilla Marketing for Consultants. Michael is a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP, and the editor of Management Consulting News and MindShare Consulting. Find out more at www.guerrillaconsulting.com and http://www.managementconsultingnews.com/.

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Our book recommendation on best practices and the problems with them

  • Best Practices Are Stupid: 40 Ways to Out-Innovate the Competition
    by Stephen M. Shapiro
    What if almost everything you know about creating a culture of innovation is wrong? What if the way you are measuring innovation is choking it? What if your market research is asking all of the wrong questions? It’s time to innovate the way you innovate.
  • The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices: The Reality of Managing Complex Problems in Organisations
    by Paul Culmsee and  Kailash Awati
    When it comes to solving complex problems, we often perform elaborate rituals in the guise of best practices that promise a world of order, certainty, and control. But reality paints a far different picture, which practitioners are often reluctant to discuss.A witty yet rigorous journey through the seedy underbelly of organisational problem solving, this book pinpoints the reasons why best practices don’t work as advertised and what can be done about it.
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  1. The Worst Thing about Best Practices

    Few consulting “tools” are more widely abused these days than so-called best practices. It’s no wonder most banks, supermarkets, airlines, retailers, and consulting firms look astonishingly similar—they’ve been busy copying each other’s best practices…