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Why Best Practices Are Mediocre

        posted by , February 28, 2013

Many organizations approach business like trendy high school kids approach fashion — they copy each other.

Best practices are created by firms (especially consulting firms), standards organizations and individuals. They are an attempt to describe methods that are optimal and widely deployed.

Definition: Best Practices

A best practice is a business method that's widely recognized for producing outstanding results. In other words, it's a way of taking what worked at one or more organizations and applying it across many organizations.

Best practices are important. It makes sense for organizations to learn from each other.

Like bees pollinating flowers, consultants play an important economic role in applying known efficiencies and innovations across many firms.

Best practices also play an meaningful role as benchmarks. If you want to do something better than anyone else, first you need to understand how everyone else does it.

As useful as best practices are, they are widely criticized for several reasons:

1. Best Practices Are An Excuse To Stop Thinking

Managers and leaders who don't want to think for themselves cling to best practices like a shipwreck victim clings to a lifeboat.

"Because it's a best practice" is often the answer to "why are we doing this"?

2. Best Practices Are Often Biased

Many best practices are the creation of consultants who are under pressure to boost sales and sound smart. Best practices may reflect these motivations.

Academic studies indicate that the homework required to validate that a practice is really "best" is rarely done1. If this is true then best practices are really just advice.

There's nothing wrong with accepting advice from a consultant. In fact, it's a good idea. The problem comes when firms adopt best practices as doctrine without validating them.

3. Best Practices Are Mediocre By Definition

Implementing what is widely considered the best method is by definition mediocre.

There's nothing wrong with mediocrity. Especially in areas that aren't your competitive focus.

If you're in the aerospace industry, it's probably a good idea to follow standards and best practices in your accounting department.

4. Best Practices Inhibit Innovation

The infinite monkey theorem says that if you have infinite monkeys banging at typewriters that one of them will "almost surely" produce the complete works of William Shakespeare.

The point here is that random paths can yield results. Best practices send everyone down the same path.

In 1781 James Watt patented a steam engine that produced 10 horsepower. So in 1781, 10hp was the high benchmark for engines. Inventors of the day were focused on ambitious goals such as producing a 15hp or 20hp engine with similar methods (steam).

A modern A380-800 jet has a total of 127,275 hp (4 engines). It wasn't possible to invent a jet engine in 1781. However, the internal combustion engine (i.e. car engine) was certainly within reach.

If you're too focused on what the next guy is doing you'll miss out on the big leaps forward.

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1 Eugene Bardach, Goldman School of Public Policy, A Practical Guide for Policy Analysis: The Eightfold Path to More Effective Problem Solving (policy analysis).


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