Get rid of ‘best practice’ before it gets rid of you!
As Dan Pink states, management was invented for a purpose and as such is not ‘a tree’ (something natural) but rather a ‘TV’. And, as he goes on to point out, TV sets break. There are several aspects of conventional management wisdom that are no longer fit for purpose. The context in which we exercise management has changed dramatically and yet many of the ‘rules’ of management remain stuck in a bygone era and are at best, increasingly irrelevant and at worst, do harm.
The notion of ‘best practice’ is one such prime example.
Best practice emerged from a mind-set that said that one should pay careful attention to those competitors running the race with you. See what they do well and then look to emulate whatever it is they are doing well. Of course there may also be lessons to be learnt from those not ‘running in your race’, those outside of your industry, from whom you can learn and then seek to copy. This all made good sense in a world where competitive advantage was forged through business efficiencies and good management was enough to get you ahead and keep you ahead of the herd.
However, there has been a significant cost to an unquestioned acceptance of best practice. The cost has been like a slow creep and has gone unnoticed against a changing backdrop of contextual change. The cost of an unthinking acceptance of best practice has been the decline and erosion of what authors Jules Goddard and Tony Eccles (uncommon sense, common nonsense) call ‘unique business’.
‘Unique practice’ is the ability to think for oneself; the intentional development of one’s own entrepreneurial muscle. Gary Hamel asks the question: “Why are we so often satisfied with ‘best practice’, when we should be inventing bold new practices?” It is a good question and one that would help dismantle the ugly scaffolding propping up best practice and allow us to build something better. Maybe you will be quick to point out the success of Chinese manufacturing and their ability to copy and clone the best of the West. That the Chinese have built much of their business success on their ability to copy others, this is fast coming to an end as Shaun Rein points out in his excellent book, ‘The End of Copycat China’. But this is another topic and serves only a distraction to the main point being discussed.
The reality is that best practice does not equate to best strategy. A fixation with best practice focuses us on the wrong things and can generate a false sense of comfort and security. “As long as we are doing this better than our chief competitor we will be fine” goes the logic, yet we know that that disruption seldom comes from expected sources (from those traditional competitors). There are countless examples as industry ‘rules’ are obliterated by those willing to think creatively and see things differently. American biochemist Albert Szent-Gyorgy, observed that discovery consists in, ‘seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought’. For business evidence of this look no further than examples such as Uber, Alibaba, airbnb and Facebook.
All that best practice achieves is to encourage those lagging behind the herd to catch-up with the herd. Goddard and Eccles go as far to suggest that best practice is the, ‘single most value-destructive idea to have come out of business schools and management consultancies over the past 20 years’. That is a very strong statement to make. It also happens to be one I agree with entirely (although I could think of a few others that come close!)
Get rid of best practice thinking and the tools used to sustain this practice. Get rid of anything that seeks to standardize thought and commoditise your business. If your strategy and strategic process is built around such notions you are in trouble. At best you might keep up (with the herd) but you will never get ahead. What it takes to get ahead in today’s world is not about building business efficiency and copying the best of the rest. Getting ahead will require that you think for yourself and that you see and think what no one else is willing to see and think. It will require different ‘building materials’, tools and measures to those you have traditionally been told make good ‘management sense’.
You want to get ahead? Dismantle best practice…it is a good place to start!