Best Practice – the Enemy of Good Practice!

Susan Cramm’s latest blog, Why Do We Ignore “Best Practices”?, has stimulated an interesting discussion about what really is the $64,000 question (actually a lot more these days!) – why do we often ignore the “blindingly obvious” and not do what we know is the right thing to do?  I discussed aspects of this question in a recent blog The Knowing-Doing Gap which referred to the book of the same name by Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton. In the book, they say “…so many managers know so much about organizational performance, and work so hard, yet are trapped in firms that do so many things that they know will undermine performance.” They found that “…there [are] more and more books and articles, more and more training programs and seminars, and more and more knowledge that, although valid, often had little or no impact on what managers actually did.”

However, I don’t want to go more into the Knowing-Doing Gap here – what the blog and the associated comments caused me to reflect upon was the term “best practice”  – a term I dislike and avoid for a number of reasons:

  • Voltaire said  “the best is the enemy of the good”. We rarely need, or can afford, “the best”, and, in any event, what is best for one organization, or one situation, may not be best for other organizations, or different situations.
  • The term “best” can also create an erroneous and dangerous belief that there is no need for further improvement. The world doesn’t stand still – changes to the global economy, the regulatory environment, business models, and technology will continue at a fast rate. We must continue to learn, adapt and improve our practices – standing still is not an option.
  • Voltaire also said  “common sense is not so common” which is also relevant here. “Best practices” are all too often seen as a substitute for judgment or common sense – or for good, experienced people. As a result, they are treated as checklists to be followed blindly without the need to think. After all, “if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”. In many cases, more focus is put on following the practice than on the desired outcome – with the means becoming more important than the end. As one commentator on Susan’s post, Mike Myatt says in his blog, The Downside of Best Practices, “My experience has been consistent over the years in that whenever a common aspect of business turns into a “practice area” and the herd mentality of the politically correct legions of consultants and advisers use said area as a platform to be evangelized, 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.”
  • Another problem with “best”, which I see all the time, is that it implies a competition. When an organization determines that they need to improve their practices, they undertake an evaluation of “competing” practices to determine which is the best. As yet another saying goes – “the less you want to do something the more you study it”. Rather than trying to select the best – organizations should pick one and “just do it”!
  • The term that I have preferred to use, and that we use in Val IT™, is “proven practices”. We do, however, need “proven practices” that are “fit for purpose” – adapted intelligently and innovatively to specific organizational cultures and situations based on sound judgement and common sense. In this context I use one of the many definitions of common sense – “shared understanding” – which could well be extended to mean “shared values”.

All of the above notwithstanding, the real challenge here is that we are trying to get people to change their behaviour to conform to rational, logical practices. People are not always logical or rational – often egos, emotions, old habits and a variety of other factors cause them to behave  differently. Changing such behaviour requires a well-orchestrated organizational change plan (even this is badly expressed as it is not organizations that change – it is individuals). We need to move beyond what is often mandated compliance to getting “buy in” and understanding of the need to behave differently, and the value in doing it – to the organization and the individual. We need to create those shared values within which proven practices are adopted but can be adapted to meet specific situations with an appropriate balance of rigour and agility.  Unfortunately, organizational change management is still largely paid lip service to and rarely done in most organizations.

If we are to deliver on the promise of IT – if we as individuals, organizations and societies are to realize the value of IT-enabled change – we need to change the way we manage that change. We have to stop asking: “When will they do something about this?”. We are “they” – all of us – we need to change how we think, manage and act. Only when we do this will we truly realize the potential value of the changes that IT can enable!

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