01 February 2015

Are Best Practices Stupid?

"Almost all absurdity of conduct arises from the imitation of those we could never resemble."

--Samuel Johnson

I needed a lot of help when my first management opportunity came along in 1973.  I was 23 at the time.  It was long before the term "best practices" had been coined. And back then the notion of "shadowing" someone was reserved for sleuths, not those in a paneled office. 

Absent consultants I resorted to intuition and decided to make contact with those in similar positions to see if I could spend a day with them and learn something that might improve the business I was managing, which happened to be "turnaround" situation. 

Professionals are different

One thing discovered early on is that with the right letter of introduction fairly successful individuals seemed to always make time for us.  Over the years I have tried to make it a practice to respond positively to similar requests.

It was always instructive to observe others in assignments greater than my own knowing that, they too, likely started in a smaller enterprise and market and persevered with hard work and a few breaks along the way.  I watched carefully to see how they dressed, listened to their language, and noted how they handled themselves in their interactions with others.  Most often they tended to be low-key in temperament, soft spoken types, as their years of experience did the talking for them.

I generally returned to the office with one or two ideas, mostly tactical.  I made it a point to run them by my direct reports, first, to see what they thought about the concepts, the timing, and if they might work in our system and culture. 

Therefore an important question in best practices is this: 

Does the idea fit?   

Innovation is the real issue

In his book, "Best Practices Are Stupid," Steve Shapiro, who at one time led the 20,000-person process and innovation practice at Accenture, makes the case for innovation, and is not against looking at others as a way to improve your organization.  

In an interview with BusinessNewsDaily, he told columnist, Ned Smith "best practices can work as long as you take the time to understand why they did it.  The problem is when best practices become a knee-jerk response to all the challenges and opportunities," Shapiro added.

The other problem is when companies look at best practices as a "one-size-fits-all."  Of course it's true that what works for one business may not work in another but that fact is sometimes overlooked when searching for solutions to a difficult problem. 

Shapiro says: "Your culture may be different; your business model may be different.  Trying to replicate what worked perfectly for someone else may have the exact opposite effect on your business."

Best practices need to be customized not only to culture but to capacity--you may not have the talent and financial resources to effectively implement a given practice. 

The source of good ideas

"Expertise is the enemy of innovation," writes Shapiro.  

If true, where do ideas come from?  Often from those who have different points of view.  So the need exists to listen inside and outside for other perspectives.  Do you have contrarians in your office or on your team?  Be thankful they're there and give them the space they need to contribute, especially when their thinking and expressions do not match up to everyone else.

Are creativity and innovation the same thing?

The book suggests they are different.   "Innovation is an end-to-end process that starts with a problem or opportunity and ends in the creation of value," the author emphasizes.  "Innovation is a system, part of the environment and woven into the fabric of everything the organization does," Shapiro said in the interview.  

His conclusion:  Too much time is spent on idea generation and not enough on what's going to be implemented, and how, and by whom.  

The key is learning to ask the right questions the right way of the right people.  

Back to our original question

Are best practices stupid?

Only when used without thought.


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