Time to Get Beyond “Best Practices”

Last week I had one of “those conversations” with a prospect, one who was convinced that if I just told him the “best practices” being followed elsewhere that he, and his company, would be well off.

It’s a chimera, “best practices”.

First, there’s only one realm in which the concept even makes sense, and that’s routine, simple, highly-ordered work.

Work that is complicated, complex, chaotic, even simple but organized as a barely repeatable process, does not lend itself to the body-slam that imposing a “best practice” is.

Implementing software that forces these practices, by the way, is equally ineffective.

Second, the notion that someone else’s practice is “good enough for you” fails to take into account your organization.

You don’t have their market share, their geography, their supply chain partners, their customers … and you certainly don’t have their people.

In other words, there’s a “secret sauce” to success, and it’s found in dealing with what makes you unique.

A wag once noted that, even at the height of the Cold War, the Western World probably had, at most, three real secrets. Everything else was readily accessible, deducible, or easy to spy out. In other words, the number of things that are really secret (and thereby worth something) are limited.

Coca-Cola, of course, has its famous “secret”: the formula for its drinks. This certainly qualifies as a “Cold War” secret (ask anyone from Pepsi or Royal Crown what it’s like to compete against Coke) and is held as such. There is, in other words, no best practice here — there is “how we do things” and its correlative statement “and who gives a damn how others would have done this”.

So why does company after company twist itself into contortions to try and adopt someone else’s “best practice”. In short, it’s a lack of courage.

Knowing what others are doing — and studying the practices used in other industries — has value.

What doesn’t have value is the assumption that “until someone (preferably several others) demonstrates the path we should take no action on our own”.

Indeed, the successful firms in every situation are those that, at the end of the day, can decide for themselves. In other words, they are able to pioneer a future, rather than wait for someone else to demonstrate that “this is the way”.

I’ll say it again: every organization is different. What worked for company ABC may well flop at DEF: the culture, organizational model, expectations, etc. are different.

So called “best practices” must, therefore, be adapted to fit your organization (which is unique) before there can be any hope of success. “Should we change — should the practice change”: these are not idle questions.

Moreover, as a retailer noted back in 1990, when faced with the entry of WalMart into their market, it wasn’t enough to try and copy WalMart so that their margins would be about the same as WalMart’s: that stopped erosion, at best.

New practices and business models would be required to push the challenge back onto WalMart.

Best practice thinking would have, at best, copied WalMart: the gap that had opened would not have been closed (even if the new approaches would have closed off the erosion) and could never have taken the competitive challenge to the giant, or any other firm, for that matter.

Nothing more than stopping losses can come from “best practices”. That is why you must instead turn to what makes your organization unique, work with that, and innovate from it.

That is why you want a flexible, networked, component-driven IT base — one that lets you experiment, shift, adapt.

Competitively, nothing less will do.


About passionateobserver

I am a passionate observer of our society, the economy, and politics. Mostly I don't like much of what I see, so I write as a concerned citizen. To the fray, I bring a background in the philosophy of history, a lifetime's reading, a work history in information technology management, consulting and education.
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