Best Practices – What are They?

Am I the only one confused? For years I’ve heard reference to Best Practices, but what constitutes a Best Practice?  Really, inquiring minds want to know.  At first blush, from the context I have heard, it seems to be they are:

  • Something that works for someone else, that you don’t have and are seeking
  • Something your competition does better, and you want to be as good as them by acquiring it
  • A solution to a problem you are experiencing and want to resolve without a lot of work and pain
  • The things in a consultant’s bag of tricks (They have nothing but … right? Just ask them.)
  • Something to aspire to – The holy grail of practices. Nirvana, once adopted.

Dissecting the expression, what is really implied:

  • There is only one “Best” practice and everything else is not worth beans? That may explain why we never hear about “Good” practices and I assume that a “Bad” practice degenerates quickly into a lesson learned.
  • Is it “Practice” or “Practices”? Can there be more than one for a given application and/or problem?
  • A practice that can’t be improved upon? It is the mountain peak from where everywhere else is down – No incremental improvements possible.

People on the hunt for Best Practices remind me of when I was in engineer school.  The educational strategy was to teach students to start with basic scientific principles to develop solutions for problems.  However, there was a subgroup of the students more focused on completing the homework assignment, than getting an education.  They would spend their time looking for a solution created by others, rather than facing the problem square on.  Isn’t this what some PM business managers are doing; avoiding tackling the problem head-on?  Company XYZ had a successful PMO (project management office) why don’t we just copy them?

When the best practice becomes the standard, everyone in the environment is at the same level and the world stagnates because there is no improvement.  To this end, a couple years ago, an article appearing in the Harvard Business Review made the argument, Information Technology had ceased to be a competitive advantage because everyone had the best-of-breed software applications, like Oracle; not having this was a competitive disadvantage, but having it was no longer an advantage.

However, George Bernard Shaw provides with another perspective:

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

This would imply, only reasonable men adopt Best Practices and real progress relies on unreasonable men working to develop something better than what everyone else has.

To bring my rant to a close, I ask you:

  • Is the Best Practice the end point (adopt and be done) or the starting point, from which something better evolves, thus staying a step ahead of others?
  • Is there truly a Best Practice that will exactly fit your needs or are you adopting a Best Practice that is a close fit?  If so, once adopted, is it still a Best Practice?
  • Wouldn’t you be better off starting from scratch and develop a Best Practice for your needs?

One Response to Best Practices – What are They?

  1. As a follow-on to this post, a column appeared in the April 2010 issue of the Harvard Business Review, titled: “Best Practices Get You Only So Far” by C.K. Prahalad. In essence his point is, if everyone in a business is using the same Best Practice there is no competitive advantage from one firm to the next. Implementing Best Practices is a catch-up tactic. He coins the phrase “Next Practices” for moving the organization forward, competitively into the future.

    What is a Next Practice? It is something that your competition is not doing, may be something being done in another industry that is adaptable, it could be something radically innovative — In a nutshell it is usually a collection of small things that makes you better than them.

    In the project environment, it is a more effective execution of projects, better business outcomes from the projects, and better utilization of the organization’s resources.

    It is not something that is easily obtained, but is pursued with passion by us unreasonable men and women.

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