The Danger of Best Practices: One Size Never Really Fits All

by Bill Sanders, Principal and Sr. Consultant with Roebling Strauss

I recently had the opportunity to negotiate a new Master Services Agreement with a Fortune 50 company. Start to finish required just over five months. Why? Because my company was deemed an "agency" and the system, built on best practices for dealing with agencies, demanded that there were certain hoops we had to jump through and certain requirements that had to be met. Five months of meetings, phone calls, emails, and back and forth that didn't produce a single dollar's worth of value for me or the client and didn't substantially change my original proposal.

While one can argue that this was a case of miscategorization, my experience is that categorizations are the result of systems, that systems stem from mindsets, and that "best practices" can be one of the most damning mindsets for any business that requires responsiveness. Especially if working toward building a great work culture is the goal.

There are three reasons that "best practices" are dangerous:

1. Best Practices Are Specific

Every "best practice" has an origin; the more specific the practice, the more specific the source of origin. It is a best practice because it worked. But where did it work? With what company? In what industry? What was their business model? Was the economy in a growth phase or in a recession?

The practice worked for a reason, and the more similarities your company has with the origin of the practice is the degree to which the practice may work for you. Especially when it comes to culture; how close are your values to the working values of the company that originated the practice?

2. Best Practices Are Subject to Calcification

Prior to the computer revolution, businesses closed their books on a monthly basis because closing the books and reporting revenue was very time and labor intensive. It was a best practice. Practically all companies received their results well after the end of the month; sometimes a full 30 days or more after month end. Then computers came along and removed much of the labor intensity along with most of the time. We can now keep track of sales, inventory, and a plethora of other financial indicators in real time.

And yet I frequently encounter companies that don't produce reports until days after the close of the month which is a little like trying to drive by looking in the rear view mirror. In this case, the best practice has calcified not just in a company or even an industry, but in an entire financial system.

3. Best Practices Can Make Us Comfortable

Comfort stifles innovation. After all, if things are going well, why change? I hear all the same objections; "But that's the way we've always done it. It's an industry standard. It's a best practice at ."

We become comfortable with the way things have been done. The longer they've been done that way, the more comfortable we become. All habits have this effect, but they are most dangerous when they are billed with the imputed authority of being a "best practice."

Redefine Best Practices to Mean Practical Insights

None of us have all the answers to building a great work culture; not Holacracy, not the Self-Management Institute, not Responsive.org, not Great Work Cultures. And if we did, we'd all be wrong tomorrow because the pace of organizational change is too great, companies and industries are wildly diverse, and as human beings we are all individuals. So how to respond in our quest?

Accept that nothing is permanent. This is an experiment and there is no rulebook. Culture is like health; it can change in an instant and requires constant attention and care.

  1. Look for principles, not rules. Explore strategies over tactics.
  2. Redefine "best practices" to mean "practical insights," and then sample widely.
  3. Experiment. Engage your team and then listen to them about the results.
  4. Then join the conversation. Share what worked, what didn't, and why you think so.

Welcome to the journey!

Bill Sanders is Principal and Sr. Consultant with Roebling Strauss, a boutique consultancy that specializes in delivering dramatic improvements in organizational effectiveness: co-founder and Advisory Board Member of Will Someone, software that facilitates and supports team alignment through commitments: and Co-Lead Link of the Finance Circle for Great Work Cultures, a community dedicated to creating a new norm for work cultures that optimize worker effectiveness and human happiness. Connect with Bill on twitter at @technacea.