On the Hunt for Best Practices? Proceed with Caution

Organizations generally strive for optimization of internal processes and for the most efficient use of resources, since some methods are better than others. The most effective way to solve a specific problem is commonly referred to as a “best practice,” yet the term is often misused and misunderstood. Management consultants are often referred to as peddlers of best practices, applying a one-size-fits-all solution to any given problem.

Let’s clarify what best practices are and are not, and how to benefit from them.

What Are Best Practices?

A best practice is a method or technique that achieves a specific goal in specific context, that has been generally accepted as superior to any alternatives, or because it has become a standard way of doing things. It usually represents a process or a set of steps. It should always be tied to achieving a goal or solving a problem, and applied to a specific context (i.e. there are innate assumptions about the setting or implementation approach). Finally, the application of the best practice consistently produces better results than any alternatives.

The term best practice is used frequently across health care, government administration, education, project management, hardware and software product development, manufacturing, agriculture, and other industries. IT organizations usually adopt and utilize best practices related to service and help desk support, issue tracking and resolution, code development and review, quality assurance and control, change control, infrastructure, environment deployment, and production go-live, among many other things.

When setting up a new process or fixing a dysfunctional one, best practices can be used as a benchmark or as a starting point to be developed further.

What Best Practices Are Not

The term is often misused or misunderstood, which can result in confusion, poor decision making, wasted resources, and missed opportunities. Best practices are not one-size-fits-all solutions, nor are they recipes that must be followed to the letter with no room for adjustments.

A best practice never exists in a vacuum. Remember, specific goals and contexts always apply for the successful adoption of any process. Best practices are rarely implemented as-is, out of the box, unless the area of need is very narrowly-defined and the proposed approach is a single correct way of doing things (e.g. in military, clinical, or other highly specialized fields).

Best practices are never a substitute for common sense, wisdom, discernment, discretion, subject matter expertise, intellect, creativity, or any other quality that’s expected to be utilized when making decisions.

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Why Do Some People Hate Best Practices?

Our CEO Mikhail Papovsky is a skeptic of best practices. This is his favorite Dilbert cartoon:

I have found that the successful implementation of any methodology always depends on its appropriate usage within a certain context. Critics of best practices frequently lose sight of this contextual dependency and assume that optimal course of action is always contingent upon external and internal situations, and therefore any predefined methodology does not apply. They maintain that their specific goal is so unique and unusual, a “canned” best practice cannot possibly apply in their situation, and therefore it would not be useful to survey any body of knowledge that already exists.

While the contingency theory is valid, most situations are rarely so unique that a best practice in some form or another cannot be applied. After all, many organizations are doing very similar work. Even innovative product companies still need to pay the bills, pay salaries, keep the lights on, exchange documents and ideas, create an environment for collaboration, track and control spending, etc.

Other detractors have tried and failed to adopt best practices to solve a particular problem. This may have been related to a lack of knowledge or skill in selecting or adapting the best practice to the context of the organization. Naturally, if the best practice did not apply or was not useful for that context, it should not have been selected in the first place.

You Are Already Using Best Practices!

If you brush your teeth, wash hands before meals, or check blindspots in the car before changing lanes, then you are already using best practices in your personal life. IT organizations that maintain and deploy servers, manage and execute projects, provide help desk support, and run data warehouses are already following some flavor of best practices related to each function.

Even when modified to fit unique needs, successful and efficient processes are typically rooted in frameworks that were defined and tested elsewhere. Frequently, people are not even aware that if they are successful, then they’ve been following a process that has already been developed and optimized by someone else.

When to Avoid Best Practices

There are instances when organizations should stay away from best practices.

1. When innovating. 

For designing a new process or trying to achieve a different outcome than is expected from a best practice, it’s best to start from scratch. Alternatively, best practices could serve as guidelines for what not to do.

2. When the end doesn’t justify the means.

In certain situations, the complexities or demands of engaging in a best practice don’t justify the outcome. In other words, it’s overkill. For example, a small organization can get away with a manual or custom process for accounting, marketing, or sales, and does not need to follow more complex processes that better fit larger organizations.

3. When it’s too disruptive.

Organizations tend to avoid major restructuring that would be too disruptive to the business. Most gravitate toward band-aid solutions or implement minor changes over time. If a best practice requires a total revamp of certain operations, it may not be a good fit and could be a nonstarter. This is precisely where management consulting makes the most sense—for making recommendations that match both the organizational context and organization’s capacity for change.

4. When alignment between stakeholders is lacking. 

Any discipline is in trouble if alignment is absent, but it is most pronounced when organizations are trying to change what they are doing by, for example, implementing a best practice. If alignment between management, decision makers, and key stakeholders is lacking, then gaining it should be the first order of business.

Best Practices for Implementing Best Practices

A best practice tends to spread throughout a field or industry after success has been demonstrated. Often best practices can be slow to spread, even within an organization.

According to the American Productivity & Quality Center, the following are the main factors that drive the successful adoption of best practices:

  1. Absorptive capacity of the recipient adopting the best practice
  2. Level of understanding of the practice
  3. Quality of the relationship between source and recipient of the best practice
  4. Level of organizational support for transfer activities
  5. Motivation of the source to share its practice
  6. Willingness of the recipient to accept the new practice

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Another key to benefiting from best practices is the knowledge and understanding of what they are, how they can be leveraged, and what aspects need to be modified to the given context.

Don’t Reinvent the Wheel. Improve the Wheel.

The inherent nature of a best practice is that someone, somewhere has tried it, and it produced a superior result. Why not leverage that experience, and explore if it could be helpful in your own situation? Make the necessary adjustments, but why start from scratch? And, if you are consciously avoiding all existing best practices, at least use them for reference, so you know you are not “reinventing” them but rather creating something brand new.

After all, if nobody bothered to reinvent the wheel, they would still be made of stone.

Credit: Dragan Milos

There is always room for improvement. Just because something worked for Company A doesn’t mean Company B can plug-and-play the same process and expect the same outcome. The key is to leverage existing information and knowledge to your advantage. In order to think outside the box, you still need to be aware of the box itself.

In conclusion, the term “best practice” can be subject to various interpretations and misperceptions. There are great benefits to adopting best practices, but the devil is in the details—how these processes are selected, contextualized, and supported is just as important as the processes themselves.

Best practices: Love them? Hate them? Let us know your opinion in the comments.

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