Best Practices- they don’t work!

As part of the consulting work I do, I sit through leadership meetings in many organisations. Sometimes these meetings can run for a few days. In most meetings, there is always a section on “Best Practices”. Someone from the organisation makes a presentation on practices they have been following and how it has created a positive impact. Usually this is around quality or safety or employee engagement. There are also instances when a new member on the team shares best practices from his or her previous organisation.

Post the presentation, there is discussion around documenting and show casing such a best practice to rest of the organisation or to a customer. Someone is made responsible to “implement the best practice”. This can be seen in the public sector too, often, we have large contingents of ministers and bureaucrats traveling to different countries to observe and learn best practices. And suddenly you find that some roads in the city have bus lanes, bike lanes etc. One even does this at a personal level. I visit a friend’s home and learn that her family has done away with television. She tells me that everyone spends more time reading and doing things together. I find merit in that and want to adapt it at my home too!

But rarely do these “best practices” work in the way one imagined. That new bus lane on the road only hinders the traffic and doesn’t quite seem like the way it worked in Singapore. The new bike lane is mostly used by the cows and dogs to move around. That new HR best practice of doing away with the bell-curve, ends up as a dud as now there isn’t a way to assess and recognize different levels of performance. My entire house hold went into a revolt when the cable connection got disconnected.

Often the “best practice” is blamed, saying it doesn’t work. Or it is abandoned mid-way like those boots in the image above by a road worker who rarely wears any footwear and the boots only seem to burden him.

There is a simple reason why best practices don’t work when they are merely copied. Every best practice is rooted in a certain operating culture and a way of thinking. Be it for a country, an organisation, home or an individual. This applies to all. We all operate out of a certain value system and the practice works because it is appropriate in that cultural context.

When an organisation decides to do away with annual performance appraisal and does so successfully, it does so because, the organisation is rooted in the belief, that every person can contribute their best when there is regular feedback and constant sharing of ideas. The managers provide an environment of growth and challenge. There are mechanisms to recognize performance on a regular basis. However, when doing away of the traditional appraisal system is copied as a best practice in another organisation, and it fails, the issue is not with the practice but the many beliefs that dominate the work place- that people work for a promotion or the best motivator is the money.

We try to implement best practices from within the organization too. Post employee engagement surveys, there are sessions to train low scoring managers on best practices adopted by managers with high scores. Very rarely does this work, as the managers might copy the rituals of having regular team meetings and coffee catch ups, but the fundamental belief that their job as a manger, is only to manage upwards doesn’t change. The scores don’t change.

My trying to get more family face time by doing away with the television didn’t work. Because my family believes watching TV together and sharing our views on it, is the best way to bond as a family! And how can you argue with that!

Does this mean that one can never learn things from others? Will everyone have to invent their own wheel? I don’t think so. I think when we look at “best practices”, we should wear a set of lenses that allow us to see beyond the practice. We should spend time observing why the practice works in a particular organization, or in a particular city? Understand what people believe in. What they value? What new behaviours people had to cultivate?

When we go behind the face of a “best practice” and understand the foundation on which it is based, we become aware of the fundamental principles guiding the best practice. Once that is understood we can decide whether we want to or are capable of emulating those beliefs, values and principles and create the environment to implement the same or a similar “best practice”.

We must always remember, when we choose to implement a best practice we are actually choosing to foster a different operating culture. And when we fail to recognize that, we will only be transplanting the external façade without the nurturing eco system. And we will certainly experience many irritants and very few benefits.

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