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Recently I read an article on the most overused and meaningless phrases in organizations. (There were sure a lot of them! It seems many people communicate in buzzwords and catch phrases without having any idea what the terms mean. Maybe that is why we are so bad at identifying talent. Sounding like a person knows something is mistaken for actually knowing how to do it. But that is a story for another time).
I shared the article with a group of practicing managers who regularly receive articles from me that I find interesting. I asked them for their thoughts and a comment for one of the managers really resonated with me. This lady leader responded,” My current pet peeve is the use of the term ‘best practice’. I realized that the people who hide behind this phrase usually can’t think on their own two feet. “
I. What is Best Practice?
Businessdictionary.com defines best practice as “A method or technique that has consistently shown results superior to those achieved with other means, and that is used as a benchmark.”
Organizations often search for practices that have worked for other companies. Unfortunately, there is usually no universal standard to define a best practice or a library that ranks the best practices in each area. In reality, 99.9% of best practices exist only in the eye of the beholder. What most companies do in their search for best practices is visit a few other companies that they heard have good practices in a specified area to see what they can learn and ultimately copy.
Because best practices are so subjective, best practice is often not a search for best but a search for a little better
II. Why Do Other Companies Best Practices Often Fall Short?
Lets say I am looking for best practice in baseball for throwing a fastball. I do some research and find that the best practice in fastball throwing is Nolan Ryan. I go visit Mr. Ryan and observe his right arm throw the finest fast ball I have ever seen – over one hundred miles an hour! Enthused, I return to my home and build up my right arm; I do exercises and throwing drills until my right arm looks just like Mr. Ryan’s. I then hit the pitching mound and after warming up properly (I observed him do that too), I hurl my first missile at the plate. It is clocked at a meager 33 miles per hour!
What happened? What I failed to observe was the complete system in which his mechanics (system) occurred. Since I am older, shorter and heavier than Mr. Ryan, simply attempting to develop my arm to look like his and even copying his mechanics will not produce the same results. I miss the alignment of all the other parts of Mr. Ryan’s training, development and delivery that makes the difference for him. This is the secret sauce that is often missing in best practices searches – the internal fit of a company’s best practice to the other parts of the organization.
Remember this, cobbling together a bunch of parts from multiple different donors is how Frankenstein was created.
III. How Have Searches For Best Practices Resulted In Negative Experiences?
If best practices would provide better performance, the search would be justified. The problem is that best practices often create lowered productivity and morale.
Here are some of the inappropriate ways “best practice” negatively impacts organizations.
• Foist a favored alternative on a skeptical organization
Some people, especially consultants and vendors will proclaim their work best practice. Their reason in doing so is to sell a favored alternative (one that will make them some profit usually). This is also done by internal staff that prefers a favored option rather than conduct a rational analysis to see if something is better.
• Hunt for what does not exist
Others genuinely feel that change should not occur if it will not solve current problems. As a result a search for best practice is initiated. This ultimately becomes an Easter egg hunt in which several options are found that are perceived to better then the current but nothing is found that neatly meets all the organization’s needs.
• Resist or delay improvement
Some suggest searching for best practice in order to delay or even stop change in a given area. The owner of the process or system being may do this, especially if he or she feels the current process is fine as is. Knowing that best practices really do not exist, this person initiates a search that will last for months looking for the non-existent.
• Give tan appearance of wisdom
Some like to suggest not acting until best practices have been discovered in order to give the appearance of wisdom. By bringing this concept up, this person demonstrates that they are a higher-level thinker who cannot be troubled by the mundane little insignificant changes without a detailed analytical search of “best”. If this person is to be involved, only seeking best practices is worthy of his effort.
Some organizations and leaders must believe they are world class at everything. Therefore, the leader will always push for a survey of best practices so that he or she can claim that whatever alternative they arrive at is, be default, built on and better then, the current best practice.
• Find but never operationalize
Some organizations put together a “best practices” analysis and even identify what they think the practices are. The problem is that these best practices never are implemented.
o This creates discouragement and poor staff morale on the part of those who truly want to see change occur. The staff that could have helped make significant changes lose heart and excitement.
o Over time, if this happens repeatedly, leaders lose trust because employees hear their words about what is possible but employees never see any action put those words into action.
o People begin to tire of leaders who talk about the best practices that are in their organizations when they know that their practices are full of problems.
Maybe organizations should fire people who use the term “best practice”?
IV. The Negative Impact Of Best Practices On Employee Innovation
Today, organizations cry out for innovation and a culture of improvement. Yet when there is an opportunity for innovation and creativity, these same organizations send employees on to search and copy what others have done. The real benefit is to use these opportunities where there is a felt need for change to engage employees in meaningful collaboration and innovation. In that way organizations t build employee engagement, foster creative thinking, and build buy-in and ownership of the final design. This approach also creates momentum in employees to look for ways to innovate.
V. How Does A Leader Build Collaborative Improvement Instead?
Remember that best practice is what fits your organization, customers and people, not what works for others. Many times what employees understand and have a commitment to make a change successful it is more effective than even a tempting to implement a superior solution that no one understands or is committed to make work.
How does the process of building collaborative solutions differ from best practices? Interestingly enough, the processes are very similar even though they differ in every important respect.
Step 1: Define the Need: Both Collaborative Solutions and Best Practices Begin with a felt or stated need.
Step 2: Initiate the effort
a. The difference is that in best practices the first step begins with an exhaustive search to find the holy grail of systems or processes.
b. In the collaborative solutions process, input is sought externally and internally but it is sought to develop criteria that define what leaders and staff want the
new design to achieve.
c. Collaborative Solution input is achieved in the following ways:
i. Assess what other organizations are accomplishing with their practices and processes and turn important features into objectives. (Note this is not a search for alternatives but a search for design criteria).
ii. Determine what your own customers and staff feel is lacking in current efforts.
iii. Include, subject matter experts, internal practitioners and even leaders input into what should be accomplished.
iv. Include outside experts, if necessary, to expand the thinking about what success could be.
d. Benefits of collaboration at step 1
i. This initial collaboration around success criteria is used to refine and prioritize the design criteria list into a clear definition so that everyone is on the same page concerning what the target is.
• As leaders and staff partner about what “optimal” is for the organization, mutual buy-in and commitment begins to develop.
• This output of this step will guide the design of alternatives (or the evaluation of pre-existing alternatives) to see which alternatives (or even parts of alternatives “fit” what the organization needs to accomplish.
Step 3: Develop alternatives. The approaches for best practices and collaborative solutions differ considerably at this step.
a. Best practices involve selecting another organization’s methodologies (or even a combination of practices from multiple organizations). The issue is “who do we want to copy?”
b. Collaborative Solutions is focused on designing an alternative that both meets the specified objectives and is tailored to the receiving organization.
i. This is accomplished by appointing a team of employees (usually cross-functional) to develop a recommendation of what “best practice” should look like.
ii. Ensure there is a facilitator that will stretch the group to think beyond the normal and branch out past simply tweaking the current.
1. Depending on the importance of the process being considered, many organizations will appoint two design teams. The first team will tweak the current process in an attempt to meet the objectives. The second team, the “White Paper” team will search for an out of the box solution.
iii. The design team serves two major purposes:
1. Create an optimal solution for the organization
2. Become a group of internal “missionaries” to advocate for the change with the rest of the staff.
Step 4: Broaden the organization participation in the process by engaging more employees in the risk assessment.
a. Many times proposed changes are run past employees to get their feedback prior to implementation. In these situations employees are asked, “How they like the new concept”. Rarely does this gain any meaningful or actionable feedback.
b. In this step employees are engaged in a systematic risk assessment process to define what could go wrong with the propose process. Employees are asked to defines specific risks and assess the probability of that risk occurring and its seriousness if it does. Then they are asked to determine if high priority potential risks can be managed and, if so, how. In this way broader groups of employees provide tangible feedback to the design.
Step 5: Assess the Recommendation and Develop An Implementation Plan
a. After the thorough risk assessment has been used to refine the design, the design team makes its recommendation to the leadership team.
b. The leadership team will evaluate the recommendation against the success criteria. This is not a fait de complete decision as the leadership team is looking for excellence. The leadership team evaluates the team’s recommendation and should not accept less than the best thinking.
c. After haring the recommendation, The leadership team can:
i. Endorse the recommendation as presented.
ii. Ask for further analysis or modification to the recommendation.
• If certain criteria are not met to the level of expectation, the design team should reconsider their alternative to include increased emphasis on missing or underwhelmed criteria.
iii. Reject the recommendation
d. If the recommendation is approved, the design team (or a new team) will develop an implementation plan to operationalize their proposal.
a. Include in the plan metrics for evaluation and a pilot test if needed.
b. At this step be sure to include good change management techniques if the change is complex and/or will impact large numbers of people. People who were involved in the design should present the concept and become advocates for change to their peers.
c. Ensure that the plan is implemented prior to pursuing another direction, becoming distracted and failing to achieve the results the team proposed.
d. Document the process so that when other companies come to you looking for best practice you can clearly explain to them how you accomplish world-class results.
Finally the organization should celebrate, begin to involve staff in the search for the next area of “collaborative improvement” and remove the term “best practice” from its vocabulary.
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