The Myth of Best Practice

The Yearning for Best Practice

“We need you to tell us what the ‘best practice’ is here,” is a request very familiar to many business and management consultants, or “we chose this consulting firm because they have worked with many similar companies and they will bring in ‘best practices’ in the industry.”

The term “Best Practice” has found a prominent place in business language and is used on many occasions to embellish the proposals offered, back up the decisions rendered, or reinforce requests made to such an extent that it seemingly overshadows all other strategic objectives or any business requirements.

In theory, “best practices” are the processes, methods, or techniques being “practised” or utilized by the “best” in a given industry. Therefore, the philosophy behind such requests for “best practices” is for you to be the best—or at least perform better— in your industry, you need to adopt what the ones at the top are doing, and right there lies multiple strategic pitfalls that might drive your business into peril.

Strategic Pitfalls

Following A Wrong Track

When after the “war of the currents” in the late 19th century, US companies adopted the 110 VAC standard for their electricity grid, they had the opportunity to be the first to utilize this newfound source of power to light houses and streets well before any European country. The United States was leading the electricity industry and defining its standards, and Europeans were late to the game; however, they decided not to follow the “best practice” of the time (the 110 Volts standard) because by then, the technology was available to handle higher voltage wires in residential areas; and thus, the adoption of 220-240 Volts standard, and benefiting from much higher efficiencies in long-distance transmissions.

The US might eventually adopt the higher voltage rates (as many houses are already being supplied with 240 VAC) as the standard delivery voltage for household use, but now it will be overwhelmingly complex, expensive, and time-consuming to change all the equipment, cables, transformers, home appliances, etc.

This is one example out of many that illustrate one major pitfall of following the “best practice”. Technology does not expand in a linear fashion: it expands in various directions, branches out to diverse areas, and introduces numerous opportunities. So, to be the best never entails following a single track, an individual path, and one line. One company may choose a path and be the best on it; however, it doesn’t mean it’s the only and the best way forward, and it definitely doesn’t mean that it will remain relevant and superior in the long run.

Pioneers and Followers

Imagining human knowledge as an ever-expanding sphere, being the best means walking on—or very close to—the edges and perimeter of such sphere. At that level, there is no one beyond the veil to imitate, there is no best or worst practice, there are only theories that are constantly being developed and exercised; theories that fail, again and again, until one works, and the next is better, and the next is even better. There is no ”best practice” in the whole process; there is a continuum of practices, each one built upon the one before, bringing more improvement.

If you are yearning for a “best practice”, you are always following someone else, hoping that you are following the right one, and in best of times, with a vast chasm in front of you, because while they are building improvements upon improvements, you are trying to catch a glimpse, a small window to an instance of a single process, out of a myriad of intertwined and inter-related business processes.

Performing Well is a Process

High-performing organizations are performing better than their competitors, not because they are using superior tools or more effective business processes, they are better because they have developed themselves into a better shape, they have grown into their current reality.

Those superior tools and effective processes will not be superior nor effective when duplicated within another organization. It’s like one trying to be a world-class athlete by adopting a world champion’s diet, drinking the same smoothies every morning, and buying the same blender.

The “best practices” that are visible from outside are the outcome of continuous efforts of an organization sustained over a long period, changing, transforming, and shaping into what they are today, and by going through these transformations, all parts of the organization change and morph, not only the tools and practices visible to an outsider.

Adoption of complex organizational concepts such as Kaizen, Lean Management, Agile, Muda, and many more, the history of our management science is brimming with such examples of copy/paste approach towards success, always imitating the “best practice” and missing organizational dynamics and the culture that has produced that excellence.

You cannot just implement Agile methodology for project management without transforming the whole organization, and you cannot simply expect the elimination of wastes (Muda) without looking at the organization holistically and systemically.

To be the “best”, you must not follow the “best practices” of others; you need to “be” the best; you need to live “your” best.

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