Think about it just for a moment – what is a best practice?
Many best practices come as universal and standardized practices maybe within a specific industry as for example PRINCE2, MSP, PMBOK and in other fields TQM, JIT, BPR, CSR, 360, or all the best practices connected to the -ing words – as for example downsizing, outsourcing, insourcing, offshoring, benchmarking, partnering.
Now think about a best practice that you are considering to adopt, one that you are adopting and implementing or one that you have adopted earlier.
Now go through the following steps and ask yourself:
- What are or were the benefits of that best practice (five benefits are enough)?
- Why was/is each benefit important?
- And why were/is each of these important?
If you can’t map out the goals and benefits and why these benefits were important it is about time to ask your self whether you are mindlessly adopting a best practice.
Much of what has been written and assumed about best practices is misleading at best, and wrong at worst. Consultants have often argued for a straightforward, universal and linear model for adopting practice that is both unrealistic and fails to generate any value. However, it is not a case of “adopt this practice and these results will automatically follow”. Many of the most effective practices have emerged from continuous trial and error. Just think about the Toyota Production System.
How we can get away from mindless adoption and move towards mindful adoption of practices?
My suggestion is that we change our perspective slightly – just changing a single word, so:
Instead of thinking of practices as being “best” we think of them as being “promising”.
Using the term “promising” rather than “best” we implicitly acknowledge and communicate to others that the practices may be of value in our context – may be not – and that it most likely needs customization now and in the future before performance improvements are experienced. In addition, in stead of claiminguniversal and best we also acknowledge that by being promising the practice have been associated with performance and developed and tested by other organisations. It is the practices’ association with performance elsewhere that makes them promising.
This re-framing of our understanding of practices comes of course at a cost. The cost is that we can’t mindless adopt the practices if our goal is to get value out of them. Hence, we need to consider how we:
1. Identify the practices for adoption is not straight forward. New ideas are constantly bubbling to the surface, produced by university professors and consulting companies. Furthermore, many good and promising practices are hidden as they results form processes of emergence and gradual recognition.
So what to do?
- Suggestion 1: Scan actively for internal good practice with the potential for development and wider deployment.
- Suggestion 2: Read – wide and critical! Read, read and then read a bit more!
2. Recognize whether it is promising means that we are able to identify what aspects of the practice makes the difference. Understanding what it has achieved in different settings in the past and what we want it to achieve in our organisation.
Understanding the causality between managerial action and practical outcomes is central to singling out the practices and the aspects of practices that have made – or have potential to make – a difference.
However, it is deceptively hard to recognize promise as people tend to report what they believe others want to hear or what they want them to hear. Often short term gains are overemphasized while bad new are suppressed. So what to do?
- Suggestion 3: Triangulate data from a variety of sources.
- Suggestion 4: Think of whether short-term success is a reliable indicator of long-term promise.
- Suggestion 5: Stand back from suppressing the bad news or overemphasizing short-term gains.
There is one thing however, to be able to recognizing promise through cause and effect we need to understand how the promising practice is constructed. Hence we need to:
3. Understand practices as bundles consisting of a core philosophy, principlesand practices, tools and techniques. This is where it really goes wrong. Most of us tend to mindlessly adopt the observable tools, techniques and practices without considering the core philosophy underpinning the practice.
While some promising practices as for example PMI’s PMBOK is based on the core philosophy of PLANNING and CONTROL with focus on PROCESSES, TOOLS and DOCUMENTATION, Agile practices such as SCRUM are based on the core philosophy of COLLABORATION and LEARNING with focus on INDIVIDUALS, their INTERACTION and SOMETHING THAT IS WORKING.
Misunderstanding the philosophy underpinning the practices usually leads to unconscious modification of the practice – eventually leading to added costs without adding any benefits. Or as Lillrank (1995) said:
If you can build the best mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door and return home with the best mousetrap available for action. If you figure out the best way to management a complex assembly operation, the world will still come to learn from you, but it is not at all clear what it will be able to bring back home.
So what to do?
- Suggestion 6: Stand back from only picking the easiest elements to adopt.
- Suggestion 7: Choose the right sequence. That is almost always people practices before anything else.
4. Practice decision-making calls for mindful reflective management where intuition, insight, judgement and rationality is the key.
So what to do?
- Suggestion 8: Resist following the herd, challenge complacency and make decisions using a mindfulness-approach where we cultivate openness to new information, resistance to oversimplification, appreciation of multiple perspectives and open-minded inquiry about new practices..
- Suggestion 9: Use intuition, insight, judgement and rationality supported by causal-mapping, frame analysis, Delphi methods and scenario planning to support decision-making.
Putting high requirements on us as managers? Maybe! However, just remember that:
Much of what has been written and assumed about best practices is misleading at best, and wrong at worst.
Consultants and academics alike have often argued for a straightforward, universal and linear model for adopting practice that is both unrealistic and fails to generate any value. It is not a case of “adopt this practice and these results will automatically follow”. Hence, try out the promise of promising practices through reflective adoption and adaptation.