Adopting “Best Practices” Is Not the Path to Innovative Leadership



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. The problem is that they encourage those seeking success in management to do what others do. But innovative leadership is about doing what others have not thought to do, not simply following the herd.

One of the most insidious of these false promises is a concept that has gained widespread acceptance and promotion. It is the theory of adopting the “best practices” of others. Unfortunately, the idea of identifying and then 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 this notion 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 in the temptations to adopt 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 they lead, not those of a competitor. Companies come in all shapes, sizes and stages of development; each has its own culture.

That’s not to suggest 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 form of flattery, but blatantly copying the way others operate is a type of “me-too” attitude that simply doesn’t work.

Best Practices and Innovation

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 fall prey to the belief 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 success. 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 as a business leader rests with process and procedure lifted from others, then you are following—not leading. 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.

Create Your Own “Best Practices”

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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