Are Best Practices Really Best?

Yes, a best practice is often arbitrary and based mainly on habit – the result of conditions that no longer apply. What we call best practices were at one point good or smart business moves, but we seldom do the work to determine how long they stay the “best” or whether they’re universally applicable. In short, best practices are only the best until they aren’t.

Another way to look at it is best practices are past practices. All sorts of “best practice” advice are either relevant only for a single firm, or just plain stupid. Best practices aren’t even very useful when carried from one large enterprise to another. The computer industry, for example, is littered with the corpses of big companies that have tried to imitate the “best practices” of IBM, Intel, or Microsoft. By contrast, the high-tech firms that have prospered are those that managed to carve out something unique. (Tesla and Apple come immediately to mind.) All those business books and benchmark reports are full of snippets about best practices – they rarely explain what to do with them in your own organizational context.

However widely admired, a firm’s best practices only function optimally in the context of a particular organization’s processes, culture, systems, and people. Plucking a practice from the situation that brought it forth and trying to graft it onto another firm produces results that are by no means guaranteed. In the long run, relying on best practices will doom you to mediocrity. Blindly following a best practice is like going to your family doctor and getting antibiotics prescribed without a diagnosis. You simply can’t apply a solution if you don’t know the problem.

So how do we solve challenges without them? By stripping away assumptions, breaking problems down to their essence, and solving them as if for the first time – also known as First Principles Thinking. It’s more time-consuming than copying your competitors, but it’s the way games get changed instead of simply played.

Just because “Company A” had success with a certain initiative doesn’t mean that “Company B” can plug-and-play the same process and expect the same outcome. There is always room for new thinking and innovation, or at least there should be. Breakthroughs happen not when you follow conventions but when you break them.

We pursue best practices to avoid having to “reinvent the wheel.” But think about it like this – if nobody ever reinvented the wheel, they’d still be made from stone. Business is fluid, dynamic, and ever-evolving, which means static advice is at best short-lived, but more often is simply incongruous with the very nature of business itself.

Andrea Olson
Andrea Olsen

Andrea Belk Olson is a keynote speaker, author, differentiation strategist, behavioral scientist, and customer-centricity expert. As the CEO of Pragmadik, she helps organizations of all sizes, from small businesses to Fortune 500, and has served as an outside consultant for EY and McKinsey. Andrea is the author of The Customer Mission: Why it’s time to cut the $*&% and get back to the business of understanding customers, No Disruptions: The future for mid-market manufacturing, and her upcoming book, What To Ask, coming in June 2022.

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