Almost on cue, Dennis Howlett pipes up with a demolition of the “best practice” myth, particularly in relation to IT implementations. He reminds me that the expression “best practice” is one of my pet hates, and still (mis)used often enough to be worth a bit of a rant …

As Dennis points out, in the IT implementation sphere the term is often used to paper over cracks in the business case – held up as a magic talisman in which your implicit belief of success can be placed. At best, this is lazy thinking; at worst an outright lie. Why do I think that?

If you’re lucky, “best practice” is something that has worked elsewhere – and it’s not a bad thing to see what other firms have been doing, and what results they were able to achieve. Unfortunately, the success celebrated as “best practice” is too often attributed to a specific methodology, set of processes or piece of software – where in actual fact these things are only a part of the environment in which success was achieved. Salespeople and management theorists with a particular silver bullet to sell will ignore the influence of other factors – timing, economic and regulatory environment, cultural factors, even the specific individuals involved (and please, never underestimate the impact on project success of having the right people in the right place at the right time) – and suggest that this success is transferable directly into your setting. Even with economies with significant similarities (like US, UK and Australia) this is unlikely to happen.

One of my objections is semantic – describing something as “best” implies (often with misplaced hubris) that the practice cannot be improved on … at best, “best” is a short-lived state, as many athletes will attest. The other objection is more subtle – while a management practice may now be part of the accepted lexicon, BEFORE it was successful it probably flew in the face of the existing practice, and was probably resisted at its inception. The implication is that by the time it is being sold to you as the best way of doing things, it is possibly ripe for its own disruption.

On top of all that comes another problem – what if you do implement a “best practice”, and by some fluke it works just as well as it was advertised? You’re on top of the world, right? Wrong – you’re at the same place as someone else was two years ago … not a particularly good position competitively – all you’ve done is come to the game with the table stakes, not a great hand. To be getting ahead of the game you have to be doing something that nobody else has done – by definition that is something that is NOT “best practice”. Ask your friendly software vendor or management consultant (and yes, that includes me) how they can help you differentiate yourself with their offering.

So am I saying there’s no value in studying the existing management models? Not at all – but don’t accept them on face value. It can be very instructive to study success stories, but you need to be sure that you understand all the reasons for that success, and whether you can emulate all of those or that some adaptation is required. And while a salesman is unlikely to offer them, experiences of failure are a useful guide as well – understanding why something DIDN’T work elsewhere can turn up opportunities for your own success (and since your chances of hearing these stories from a salesman are slim, perhaps you should be reading someone like Michael Krigsman).

Note that if you ARE looking for “table stakes”, not competitive differentiation, accepting good practices from other places with little or no adaptation can clean up some inefficiencies and free up resources to chase the elusive edge … just don’t mistake “best practice” for a competitive advantage; that’s the outright lie we are often sold.