When Best Practices May Not Be Best

For a long time I've been bothered by the fact that many leaders with whom I come in contact are obsessed with identifying and replicating "Best Practices." This has been more of an intuitive thought rather than a practical one as I haven't really been able to say clearly why this bothers me. However, re-reading Seth Godin's outstanding book "Tribes
," it occurred to my why "Best Practice Sharing" can create a hidden problem. Hear me out and see what you think.

When leaders start focusing on identifying best practices, they are by definition identifying what has worked in the past. Too often, they examine the process…the manner in which something was done…and then try to work out how they can replicate the process in their own business or context. One client I worked with recently, for example, was determined to bring case studies into the corporate workshop in order to see if there were ways of applying the solutions in the cases to her own company.

Here's my problem. Almost every leader that has tried, for example, to take Jack Welch's approach at GE and replicate it in their own company has found it difficult if not impossible to do. This is because Welch's approach was not just about a process. It was about a mindset, a culture, and a specific moment in time when these changes could be made. We know in science that to replicate an experiment, all of the conditions have to be the same.  I suspect this principle is true as well when it comes to best practices.

I suggest that leaders need to go a step or two further. We should study more thoroughly the "Success Practice" that went into making the process work rather than the "Best Practice" of the process itself. We should see what it took to create the vision around the solution, and how the leader went about testing his or her ideas and gaining support. We should see what it took to bring about the necessary change and worry less about the step-by-step instructions for imitation.

True leaders are always surveying the landscape for new ideas and approaches. A good historian can document a process, but a leader has to understand the forces behind the actions. That is where the "Success Factors" can be found.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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