“Best Practices” May be the Worst Practice

Following the concept of “best practices” is trying to copy what others have done successfully, but without the creative ingenuity needed to achieve real success.

The road to leadership and management success is not an easy one, and there are many who fail to reach the desired destination. Those seeking success are inevitably confronted with potholes, perilously winding curves, blind corners, dead-ends, and bridges to nowhere. There is no question that these impediments can be discouraging and test the mettle of any success-seeking soul. The frustrations that come from facing these obstacles can weaken the resolve of those searching for success and make them susceptible to the illusion of time-saving short-cuts and the allure of “success made easy” promises. And there are those who – for a fee – will promise to divulge the secret to clear sailing and the shortcuts to success.

For the most part, however, these are false promises; nothing more than detours of slick pledges of easy success that fail to deliver. These assurances of BestPracticesuccess are offered by those I call the “medicine men” of the business world, a.k.a. consultants. One of the most insidious of these false promises of success is a concept that has in recent years gained widespread acceptance and promotion. It is the theory of “best practices.”

The essence of “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 success. The concept is simple: If you copy the “best practices” used by successful people or organizations, then you will become successful as well. It is a “copy to create” strategy, but without the ingenuity needed for real success.

The conventional “wisdom” of best practices is that a leader can be more effective at delivering a specific outcome by following a standard way of doing things that has been established by other organizations. The promise is that success will be achieved if the processes, systems, checks and structure of other organizations are adopted. 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.

The Sad Truth about BP


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 by offering prefabricated templates to standardize leadership and business process systems. At least selling best practices does make success easier for one group.

There are a number of fallacies and fool’s gold temptations in the promises of adapting best practices. The first of which is the assumption 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 will show that there are distinct differences in the style of these leaders and how the concepts are applied. 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 comes with its own culture. And it is as reckless to compare and overlay the best practices of one company on another.

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. Nor am I suggesting that “consultants” cannot play an important role in the search for success, but it should be more as a “mentor” challenging management to find new ways and making their own decisions as to the best way to do things, not just to copy the “best practices” of others.

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. Ingenuity, which is the real fuel of success, is lost. Once 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 of 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. In short, the best practices you can adopt to overcome the obstacles to success are the practices that others will want to copy.

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