“The “best practice” is one of the business world’s most common conventions, but it’s often arbitrary and based mainly on habit – the result of conditions that no longer apply.”
– Shane Snow, Contently Founder & Author
When developing new working models for organizations, I am frequently asked whether there are any „best practices“ to follow, as that would save time and add to the conviction that the model might work.
This reflects a desire for certainty that organizational theorist Ralph Stacey attributes to wanting to „defend people against the anxiety of feeling uncertain.“
„Best practices“ first became popular in the early 20th century with Taylorism and „scientific“ management and resurfaced with process reengineering and lean management. It has been a common buzzword in (consultant-) slide decks since.
This genesis of „best practices“ also explains what I find most challenging about them. The idea originated when many business processes and their contexts were „only complicated“ and could be described in deterministic terms.
These processes were like the assembly instructions of an Ikea shelf. A sequence of easily describable steps in a bounded context that – worst case – require some „if – then – else“ decisions.
Most business models, business environments, and organizations in the 21st century have since gained in contextual complexity.
Best Practices, therefore, need to be considered very carefully:
Firstly, it is essential to remember that just because something is considered a „best practice“ doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for your organization. The circumstances and constraints that led to the development of that practice may not apply to your situation in the same way. Instead of replicating an exact process, using it as inspiration and adapting it to fit your organization’s unique needs may be more helpful.
Similarly, many best practices are designed for broad applicability. Therefore, they may not work in the specific context of your particular project or situation. It is crucial to account for and adjust for nuances as a practice can otherwise fail or lead to suboptimal outcomes.
As mentioned above, best practices have their origin in industrial processes, and they are meant to provide stability and consistency. For this reason, they should not be blindly followed when circumstances change. Regularly reviewing and adapting practices to the evolving landscape can ensure their continued effectiveness.
Lastly, everyone involved should understand its purpose or why some practice was introduced. In Jeff Bezos’s words: „…if you’re not watchful, the process can become the thing. This can happen very easily in large organizations. The process becomes the proxy for the result you want. You stop looking at outcomes and just make sure you’re doing the process right.“ If a purpose has changed or ceased to be relevant, the related practice may need to be retired.
In my experience, relying on best practices can stifle innovation and constrain effectiveness. We use „best practice examples“ primarily as inspirations to develop new approaches that produce sustainable advantages in the context at hand.
Best practices, much like process frameworks, therefore should be approached mindfully.
When Are “Best Practices” Not Best Practices?
Professor Scott Anthony explains in HBR why blindly worshiping at the altar of best practices is dangerous.
The Problem With Best Practices
Shane Snow in Fast Company on why Best practices are only the best until they aren’t.