It is an article of faith that organizations need to adopt best practices in order to be strategically successful. Deciding to follow the crowd seems safe, easy and proven. In many instances, that perspective is not only wrong but dangerous. Here’s why.
Challenging the value of best practices
There is an innate appeal to borrowing strategies and practices from other organizations. They have been built, they have been tested and they have been proven to work. If another organization experienced success doing something, then doing the same thing—or at the very least, something similar—should deliver you comparable results.
This has been the logic of best practices and the rationale behind the adoption of theoretical best-of-breed techniques and tools for several decades. It appears easy, offers quick wins and success if virtually assured. What’s not to like?
The problem with this premise is that it isn’t actually true. What works for one organization is not necessarily—and sometimes not even likely—going to work for another one. Even if you are in the same industry, doing similar work for relatively comparable customers, the chances of success are arguably low. When any of those factors differ, the problems escalate further.
Why best practices became popular
Borrowing practices from elsewhere has long been popular, and tempting. Figuring out new approaches to working is difficult. It requires effort and experimentation to get right. A great many organizational improvements fail to deliver on their promises, and many attempted changes never actually get fully implemented. Efforts get abandoned, compromised or watered down from their initial vision. Leveraging practices that have already had an impact elsewhere has enormous appeal.
The adoption of project management as an organizational practice is a good example. Modern project management has its origins in the 1950s and 1960s. It is variously attributed to the development of the Polaris missile submarine platform and the development of plant turnaround techniques at Dupont. These gave us the PERT and CPM methods of scheduling, which are still used and promoted to this day.
Advocates of the developed approaches subsequently promoted their implementation by other organizations. Consulting careers were launched, organizations dedicated to advising on their adoption emerged and associations were formed to advocate for widespread use of the techniques.
The rise of business process re-engineering in the 1990s raised the profile and reinforced the urgency of improving organizational practices. The twin imperatives of reducing waste and ensuring competitiveness drove the investment of millions of dollars into efforts to improve processes and redesign systems. This effort fuelled its own consulting boom. Theoretically, reengineering involved adopting holistic practices to evaluate, design and reinvent organizational practices to create competitive advantage.
Reengineering was responsible for many abuses and misuses. The term became a euphemism for layoffs and outsourcing. Rather than tailoring approaches and designing contextually relevant solutions, consulting firms duplicated strategies from client to client. Rather than doing the work, parachuting in existing approaches from elsewhere was commonplace.
The rise of Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software bolstered this trend under the guise of automating the complex workflows and financial planning of organizations. The promise was a single software solution that could fully automate the functions of an organization. The challenge was that the software solutions were incredibly complex and difficult to implement and to operate. Attempting to tailor the software to the requirements and desired customizations of clients became progressively discouraged. Organizations changed their practices to accommodate the software, rather than customizing the software to reflect to the particularities of the organization.
Why best practices don’t translate well
An inherent challenge with the adoption of best practices is that their application is limited. The very principle of a “best” practice asserts that there is one right way of doing things. This is rarely true, outside of very simple and elementary practices.
Where best practices make the most sense is in resolving simple, cause-and-effect situations. The greater the level of simplicity of the problem, the more likelihood that a best solution might exist for it. When there is a problem with the exhaust of your car, or your computer keyboard stops working properly or the WiFi no longer connects on your phone, there is a recommended approach to fixing the problem (usually involving replacement of the part that stopped working). Because of this situation, you should take this action.
Once you get beyond the very simple, however, alternative approaches quickly emerge. You might think, for example, that there is one best way to cook an omelette. In that, you would be very, very wrong. Some advocate whipping the eggs to a froth, while others advocate for gently mixing them. There are arguments for adding milk, or cream, or water, or nothing at all. There should be no ingredients or there should be many. Assertions exist that omelettes are best cooked slowly over very low heat, or fast over relatively high heat. You will even find claims that you should stir, swish, gently prod, flip or not touch it at all.
The basis of finding a right answer, as it so very often does, comes down to a fundamental reality of “it depends.” If there are so many variables in the making of omelettes, you can well imagine the multiplicity of options once you get into choices around accounting conventions, supply chain principles, marketing strategies and the articulation of strategy. Because organizations have different imperatives in different contexts, the options available to them and the implications of each option vary considerably. There is no one right way of proceeding that is necessarily transparent or obvious. Figuring out what works is going to take some effort.
A case study in figuring out what works
A case study in what is possible—and what is not—comes courtesy of an organization that we worked with over a period of more than a decade. Our work started with facilitating their strategic planning process and thinking about how they managed their corporate planning. As a municipality, this process was highly political. The problems that they were experiencing as a result were numerous.
The most significant problem was that they simply took on too much. This reality had a number of follow-on consequences. People were spread too thin on too many projects, where they already struggled to do their day-to-day work. Progress on any project was incremental, with a little bit done at a time. Attention was focussed on what was a crisis, what was most recently asked about or the newest priority to emerge. Older projects languished, and few actually made it to completion. Financial resources were tied up in previously approved work, not being spent but also not being redeployed to other priorities.
At the start of this work, the CFO articulated a simple definition of success: “I want to see us say ‘no’ to something. Anything.” In a world where every priority went ahead, this would have been a meaningful outcome. We worked with them over a period of two planning cycles to rethink how they approached strategy, redefine how planning was done corporately and departmentally, and realign how all of this tied into the process of setting budgets. We facilitated their Council strategic planning sessions, and worked extensively with their executive and management teams to translate stated strategy into practical workplans.
What emerged became progressively embedded in the organization over time. Through a process of training, support, guidance and automation, the result was a corporate planning process that fully integrated the process of decision making. Moreover, decisions actually got made. Out of the priorities that would emerge and be defined in any given year, perhaps half of them would ultimately be approved. A line was drawn each year, with some adaptation and adjustment, where the organization defined what it would take on, and what it would say “no” to. Perhaps most successfully, this approach became so entrenched in how the organization planned that support was taken over by internal staff. After a few short years, they had taken full ownership of the process and its operation.
What is important in this example is what happened after that. Other municipalities took notice of what the organization had done, and its relatively unique approach to planning and budget setting. They asked for information. They sought demonstrations of what was done and how it worked. The organization was asked if they would provide samples of templates that could be used elsewhere.
While practices and templates were willingly shared, however, they wouldn’t have made a difference. Another municipality could have adopted the same process to the letter, used the same templates, worked through the same steps and implemented the same underlying system to manage the work, and they would have failed to realize the same results.
This gets to the heart of why practices are so difficult to translate into different contexts. The practices and systems are the surface appearance. What is not evident—but makes all the difference in how the organization manages—are the principles and philosophies of how the processes are managed.
For the municipality in question, a central principle was making sure that what went ahead was of most value to the organization. Departments didn’t own their own priorities; they were all considered together. Managers and directors politely but confidently called each other out on relative priorities. More to the point, executives would give up their priorities in a given year, so that other initiatives could move ahead that would better serve the organization. The organization went so far as to eliminate all reserves from its budget except for those that were mandated by legislation. Every project competed equally with every other one for allocation of a single, corporate budget.
What was implemented in terms of process and system made the administration of this process efficient and manageable. But the surface practices hid a much deeper cultural transformation in how decisions were made in the organization, that extended from Council through the executive team and down to the rest of the organization. Managers got better at proposing initiatives. They framed and presented them with overall value in mind. More importantly, projects that wouldn’t get support never even got proposed. Every year, what was brought forward was more aligned, relevant and focused on what mattered to the organization.
The bottom line is that you can borrow practices and implement systems, but without changing the thinking and discipline behind those systems, you will not get change.
When you can borrow practices
This is not to say that organizations can’t borrow practices. The circumstances of when it is reasonable to do so, however, needs to be clearly circumscribed. Most appropriately, they needed to be clearly defined, demonstrably relevant and able to deliver value on their own.
An organization might, for example, adopt a different expense reporting process that streamlines and optimizes expense claims. Perhaps it is a better template. There might be software that makes this happen in a more efficient fashion. A credit card provider may offer an integrated capability that manages the workflow of reporting, approvals and even entry into the accounting system. The point is that this is a well-delineated, relatively transactional way of dealing with a process that most organizations need to manage on some level. A better way of doing this is going to be appealing. Making it work will still require customization, but tailoring categories of reporting and mapping them to chart of account codes should still be relatively straightforward.
Alternatively, you might adopt a meeting minutes template that you saw being used by a different organization, or perhaps an association of which you are a member. Valuing the structure, clarity and ease of follow-up, you bring it back to your organization and suggest adoption of it there. There are again questions of tailoring and customization. There will be variations in agenda, different conventions around delegating follow-ups and perhaps different systems for managing action items. On a self-contained basis, though, it is still possible to visualize how this might adapt and be useful.
Stretch beyond these examples, though, and potential problems start to emerge. Even with something as simple as meeting minutes, there are potential issues. At their essence, meeting minutes are a reflection of discussion, decisions and follow-up action items. The meeting process, however, has embedded within it a range of philosophies and rituals. The practice of making decisions has many different potential dynamics, and capturing what is done when needs to be sensitive to that reality. It doesn’t take much probing beneath the surface to get to a place where just borrowing an approach from somewhere else might not fit.
What to do when you can’t just borrow
Any practice that is central to how an organization operates and thinks about its work is going to be unique and have specific nuances that are relevant to its functioning. That depth goes beyond the surface of visible process, templates and systems. The particulars are tied to the history of the organization, its underlying philosophy and the principles and values that reflect how things actually operate beneath the surface.
Cultural context and organizational particulars are what get in the way of adopting theoretical best practices—to the extent that such things exist—wholesale. Instead, different approaches are required if you are going to get to a solution that can be successful for your organization.
Going back to the case study above, what was ultimately implemented drew on a variety of domains and practices. There were dimensions of strategic planning, corporate planning, innovation management, project management, budget planning and fiscal management at play. The specific practices borrowed from these domains. What was borrowed, though, was exclusive to the problem being solved and the challenges of getting the organization to think differently about their investments, their decisions and they way the chose the work they took on.
Solutions were adapted in a way that made sense. That meant picking an approach that was relevant to what the organization needed, but also integrating the specifics of that choice into the larger process that was emerging. It needed to fit, it needed to make sense and it needed to be accepted by the organization in managing their work and making decisions.
In the vast majority of instances, you cannot borrow practices wholesale and hope to be successful. You can be inspired by them, of course. It is possible to explore the work of others, and consider how approaches solve problems that you experience in your organization. You can look at systems and processes and consider how they might adapt to your needs and the particulars of your situation. In all instances, though, you need to think about how to adapt them to your organization. You need to get to the underlying reasons of why a change needs to be made, and the criteria that will make it successful, before even taking your first step in defining what you are going to implement.