Bob MacDonald on Business

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“Best Practices” is the Fool’s Gold of Management Leadership

December 19th, 2010 · No Comments · Building Better Business Managers, Business Management

The road to leadership and management success is not an easy one, and there are many who fail. Those seeking success will be confronted with potholes, perilously winding roads, dead-ends, and bridges to nowhere. That’s bad enough, but when these obstacles are encountered, there are those who promise that there will be clear sailing ahead and the objective achieved if only those seeking success follow and implement accepted actions.

For the most part, however, these are false promises; nothing more than detours of  slick promises that fail to deliver. (Most of the suggested techniques to achieve leadership and organizational success were invented by those who lack the ability to lead or manage, so they became consultants!) The problem is that the fundamental proposition of these techniques is that they encourage those seeking success in management to do what others do, but real leadership is an individual, not group activity.

One of the most insidious of these false promises of leadership success is a concept that has gained widespread acceptance and promotion. It is the theory of “best practices.” The idea of identifying and implementing “best practices” is nothing more than a scheme invented by management consultants to serve as a type of perpetual annuity of fees paid by those seeking the yellow brick road to management leadership. The concept is simple: if you copy the “best practices” used by successful people or organizations, then you will become successful as well. But, it is fool’s gold.

The consultants do not want you to know this, but the core of the best practices hypothesis is, in reality “copy to create.” The conventional “wisdom” of best practices is that a manager can be more effective at delivering a specific outcome by following a standard way of doing things that have been established by other organizations. The idea is that by adopting the processes, systems, checks and structure of other organizations, the desired objective can be achieved with fewer problems. What has allowed the concept of “best practices” to become so accepted is the alluring, but false promise that success can come faster and with less effort simply by following, copying and repeating the procedures that have worked for other leaders and organizations.

Unfortunately, the only ones to benefit from the wishful thinking that adapting “best practices” as a leadership or organizational philosophy are the consultants. Selling the proposed benefits of “best practices” allows the consultants to charge outrageous fees for offering prefabricated templates to standardize leadership and business process systems.

There are a number of fallacies and fool’s gold temptations in the promises of adapting best practices. The first of which is that all leaders and organizations are the same and that they face similar challenges and opportunities. Of course, this is simply and patently untrue. What distinguishes truly outstanding leaders is their individuality. And what distinguishes truly successful organizations is their unique culture.

While there are fundamental principles such as open communication, consistency, trustworthiness, respect for followers and high ethics that are common among successful leaders, a closer look at their application of leadership will show that there are distinct differences in the style of these leaders. The reality is that there are no “best practices” of real leadership that can be easily quantified and copied.

It is even more foolhardy to think that the processes and procedures – let alone the culture – of one organization are easily transferable to another. As with individuals, organizations develop their own unique style and culture. There is no doubt that a leader should seek out and instill best practices within an organization, but those best practices must be designed to leverage the culture and resources of the organization he/she leads, not those of a competitor. Companies come in all shapes, sizes and stages of development Each has its own culture. And it is as reckless to compare a Jack Welch with a Steve Jobs as it is to overlay the best practices of GE on Apple.

I am not suggesting that you don’t study the style of leadership of others or understand what it is your competition is doing, but you ought to do that to do better than the competitor, not to become the same. Imitation may be the sincerest of flattery, but blatantly copying the management styles of others is a type of “me-tooism” that simply doesn’t work.

There is an even greater risk that comes with falling prey to the fascination of a best practices philosophy. Adopting a “best practices” style of leadership or the processes of other organizations legitimizes sameness and mediocrity; it stifles innovation and encourages bureaucracy.

If you believe that the best way to achieve your organizational objectives is to adopt the best practices of other leaders or organizations, there is no reason to attempt to discover a better or more innovative way to achieve objectives. Moreover, what might be best practice 10 or 20 years ago may not be best practice today. Just ask Blockbuster Video or Circuit City. If you think the path to achieving success for your organization rests with process and procedure lifted from others, then you are following—not leading. Process and procedure creates a bureaucracy that rejects innovation and effort. In reality, “best practices” encourages you to attempt to be successful by doing what the competition does. This is wrong. The way to beat the competition is by being better than the competition, not by doing what they do.

And the Moral of the Story …

If you want to be successful, develop your own style and your own best practices. Don’t be fooled by the false promise that the easy, simple path to success is to study what others do and copy them. Yes, study what others do, not to do what they do, but to do what they do better.

“Best practices” is a wonderful idea and a philosophy. However, they should be the best practices that you develop in your leadership style and the practices that best fit the strength and culture of your organization. The best practices you can adopt are ones that others want to copy. Then you will win the gold and they will be the fools.

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