Why Business Best Practices Are Evil

Why things are moving too fast for best practices to be effective anymore.
October 24, 2011

When it comes to our businesses, we love industry best practices. We love benchmarking and competitive analysis. We love the feeling we get when we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We like case studies and white papers and our army of consultants who can go out there and figure out what the best practices are so we don’t have to.

There is just one problem: Best practices are evil.

Yes, this sounds impossible—the argument in favor of best practices is strong. In any industry, there are many different people all working on the same kinds of things, so why shouldn’t we take the time to analyze the different ways of doing things and identify the ones that have been consistently more effective than others and then replicate them? It’s almost a Darwinian approachif we can weed out the less effective practices and replicate only the best ones, then we can dramatically increase the performance of the industry or the company over both the short and long term.

However, the practices we're replicating weren't created for today’s world. They were created for a different context, and either we’ll spend time adapting them to the current context (there goes efficiency) or, more likely, we’ll just slap it on today’s context and hope it works. In our increasingly complex world, that approach rarely works. Things are moving too fast.

Social media eats best practices for breakfast. If anything, social media took some of the best practices in media, marketing and learning and either turned them on their head or discarded them entirely, achieving astonishing results in the process. Consider Twitter. It was originally built to be a way for people in one organization to communicate with each other via text messaging. Had the founders of Twitter focused exclusively on best practices for text messaging, or intra-organizational communications, Twitter would never have been transformed into the incredible social network that it is, with millions of messages exchanged daily and, given what we have seen in Iran, Tunisia and Egypt, arguably the power to support a revolution. There are no best practices to tell us how to do that.

True, observing our environment and learning from it is a good thing. But remember that we must always adapt what we observe to fit our own context. This requires certain capacities, ones not always found in today’s companies. Creating our own best practices from scratch requires a company that is adept at experimentation, has learning infused into its culture, and can collaborate effectively across traditional boundaries. Because of our (legitimate) focus on getting the trains to run on time, we often forget about these important capacities, particularly when we are just starting out. But that is the most important time of all—that is when you create the culture that will guide your company in years to come.

So take a look at the way people in your company behave when it comes to learning and experimentation. Are you supporting them? Is there hesitation? Do you take the time to make sure learning spreads throughout all your employees? Are you asking for people in different departments to collaborate on projects? Take time now to make shifts in your processes and your behavior to ensure your culture has the strength to compete in today’s more social world. The staggering success and growth of social media has demonstrated that this kind of innovation is within our reach. Let’s start creating companies that use this kind of innovation to push past the evils of best practices.

Image credit: Tracks by Nanagyei

OPEN Cardmember Maddie Grant and co-author Jamie Notter delve into this topic and much more in their new book, Humanize: How People-Centric Organizations Succeed in a Social World.