Tip #692:  Do Organizations Need “Best Practices”?

Today’s ‘best practices’ led to dead ends; the best paths are new and untried.” Peter Thiel

Implementing best practice is copying yesterday; innovation is inventing tomorrow.” Paul Sloane

Quality performance for businesses has typically included the use of “best practices.”

According to Wikipedia, a best practice is “a method or technique that has been generally accepted as superior to any alternatives because it produces results that are superior to those achieved by other means or because it has become a standard way of doing things.”

There are two problems with “best practices.”

First, while “best practices” may have generated superior results for some organizations, that does not mean they were effective in others. This is due to the fact that every organization is different. As noted by Margaret J. Wheatley in her book, Leadership and the New Science:  http://margaretwheatley.com/books-products/books/leadership-new-science/

In natural systems, order is not imposed from without. It develops naturally from within…Systems influence individuals, and individuals call forth systems. It is the relationship that evokes the present reality. Which potential becomes real depends on the people, the events, and the moment. Prediction and replication are, therefore, impossible.”

There are no “standard” organizations. The people, events and the moments to which she refers are always unique and constantly changing. As a result, there cannot be any one-size-fits -all “best practices” that can and should be imposed on organizations.

The second problem with “best practices” is that what worked before will not necessarily work again. Situations and circumstances are constantly changing.

In a recent issue of Harvard Business Review, John Hagel III and John Seely Brown write that organizations need new knowledge. https://hbr.org/2017/08/help-employees-create-knowledge-not-just-share-it

“Organizations are increasingly being confronted with new and unexpected situations that go beyond the textbooks and operating manuals and require leaders to improvise on the spot, coming up with new approaches that haven’t been tried before. In the process, they develop new knowledge about what works and what doesn’t work in specific situations.”

Perhaps it is time for organizations to stop valuing and trying to replicate “best practices” that may never have been a good fit for them.

Instead, they need to focus on continually developing specific practices to meet each new unique situation as it arises. We might consider them  “innovative” or “situational” best practices that are specific to the organization.

So how does an organization develop new knowledge? According to Hagel III and Brown, managers should create small diverse work groups that provide a respectful and comfortable environment within which employees are encouraged and supported as they try different responses to new situations and learn from their experiences.

This will develop the employees’ capabilities for critical thinking, risk taking and creativity. Those capabilities will ensure that the organization continues to learn and to successfully adapt to new challenges and circumstances

Do you think that many, if not all, organizations can be effective relying on standardized “best” practices? Or is it time to recognize that each organization needs to develop “innovative practices” that are unique and specific to the situations faced by its managers and employees?

May your learning be sweet.


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