Any complex concept that gets boiled down to a catchphrase deserves occasional expansion and debate. This month, that catchphrase is best practices. I've always had mixed feelings about this concept. I'm not against the idea, but I feel it is too often taken to be the last word in how to get things done.
One could argue that I'm violating best practices for this column by wasting it in an ordinary issue of the magazine, when it would clearly make a much better counterpoint in one of the awards issues. Looking at what got the industry leaders where they are is all well and good, but there's got to be more to business than cribbing plays from the other team's book. (That's what would have made it so good in another issue, anyway. I'm giving away gold here, people.)
As with some of my previous columns, this one was inspired by something out of popular culture. In 1992's Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood's retired outlaw, Will Munny, is asked by Saul Rubinek's penny-dreadful biographer, W.W. Beauchamp, about the bloodbath that has just occurred:
W.W. Beauchamp: When confronted by superior numbers, an experienced gunfighter will always fire on the best shot first.
Will Munny: Is that so?
W.W. Beauchamp: Yeah, Little Bill told me that. And you probably killed him first, didn't you?
Will Munny: I was lucky in the order, but I've always been lucky when it comes to killin' folks.
W.W. Beauchamp: And so, who was next? It was Clyde, right? You must have killed Clyde. Well, it could have been Deputy Andy. Wasn't it? Or, or...
[Will points the rifle in his face.]
Will Munny: All I can tell you is who's gonna be last.
Ignoring the ghoulishness of asking for the highlights of a multiple murder when some of the victims are still bleeding out, this is a fair summary of one of the problems with following best practices. As often as not, a strategy works because it's appropriate to the moment, not because it's the objective best means. It's a best practice if it works; it doesn't work just because it's got the best practices label.
I totally get the idea of following guidelines, duplicating things that have been successful in the past. The reason we keep records of activities and outcomes is so we can learn from and repeat them. Some things are so ingrained as being right that the very thought of changing them is ludicrous. We pay for goods and services with money, not feathers. Disease is treated with medicine, not whippings. Reinventing the wheel is foolish.
Foolish, that is, if what you need is a wheel. If you need a lever or an inclined plane, the wheel isn't going to do you much good. That brings me to the other side of the coin. The people who succeeded using those so-called best practices are not you. Even if you are in the same segment of the same industry, you aren't identical. There may be very good, but not readily apparent, reasons why you will not repeat your competitor's success. You might not fully understand the reasoning behind the practice, or the implementation.
The other reason I shy away from best practices is more philosophical. Best practices can stifle innovation if you're not careful. Oh, it's not always that way–IBM, Apple, and Google are among organizations that have fostered a culture of creativity by building it into their corporate DNA. But when the goal itself is not innovation, following the script can blunt the desire to try new methods.
I am not suggesting that proven methods should be abandoned on a whim. What I am saying is that the true best practice is to always be looking for a way to do something better, even if it breaks from tradition or accepted wisdom. Following in somebody else's footsteps is efficient, but it rarely leads anywhere new.
Marshall Lager is the managing principal of Third Idea Consulting, dedicated to finding the best way to move businesses and customers forward. Engage him at www.3rd-idea.com, or www.twitter.com/Lager.