Something that has always puzzled me about some organizations is their tendency to ignore best practices.
One particular industry has ignored best practices for decades, filling the gap with hastily developed, poorly vetted practices instead.
This tendency�phenomenon, even�holds true for organizations of various size, specialization, and maturity in this anonymous industry. It is pervasive and deep-rooted.

What is a best practice? Many definitions exist. Here is Merriam-Webster’s:

“a procedure that has been shown by research and experience to produce optimal results and that is established or proposed as a standard suitable for widespread adoption.”

One change to this definition might include collaboration. Best practices are formed when teams collaborate, sometimes cross-functionally, across organizational bounds. Through iterative development, they develop a procedure, process, or�yes, practice�that is then standardized and made available to others. These practices are scrutinized by others in the industry and, once adequately refined, recognized to be the best practice because they are efficient and produce consistent, superior results.

The benefits to adopting best practices are plentiful:

  • Avoiding the need to re-invent the wheel. By adopting best practices, organizations do not require the time, resources, and work that goes into coming to the same conclusion.
  • Rapidly implementing several practices. By avoiding the overhead that goes into finding best practices, organizations can spend those resources on training and implementing them instead.
  • Minimizing the impact of iterating through immature processes. Teams benefit from not having to go through the “growing pains” associated with iterating through practices as they reach maturity.

Aside from the benefits, consider the detriments associated with choosing not to adopt a best practice. A senior leadership team I was on was attempting to fix their ineffective performance appraisal process:

  • Leaders did not have appropriate influence on performance ratings and merit increases for their direct reports.
  • Front-line workers received performance feedback inconsistently or not at all.
  • Merit increases were distributed unevenly.
  • The timeline was broken in such a way that employees received merit increases (or not) before they received their corresponding performance review.

You can imagine the impact on morale.

To resolve this, managers on this team would propose novel practices that they had imaginatively invented. In some cases, these proposals were not rooted in any sort of research or common methodology. Instead, managers proposed practices that “felt right.” In others, they proposed practices that they had “heard about.” But at no time did anyone pause to research whether a best practice for a performance appraisal process already exists (narrator: it does, including this toolkit from SHRM and this example from MIT). Instead, through a lot of lobbying, a revised process was developed that was only marginally better at best than the existing one.

While the benefits to best practices are numerous, there are some caveats. Best practices are not omnipotent in that they work for every organization in every scenario at every time. But if the best practice is to build houses of brick, there is no benefit to using straw or sticks as a starting point. Organizations are better served to start with brick and adjust from there. Likewise, best practices should not be blindly adopted and never questioned. Like any other process, an organization should evaluate a best practice, decide to implement it, and institutionalize some mechanism to review its efficiency and effectiveness at interval, modifying it as necessary over time.

While developing practices that do not exist elsewhere often requires innovation and ingenuity, organizations hurt themselves when they use this mindset first without asking if the problem has already been solved. Best practices exist in virtually every industry and function, from retail, construction, and healthcare, to information technology, human resources, and marketing. Influence your peers to stop creating new processes, or fixing broken ones, from the ground up. Help them identify resources and networks that can expose them to best practices to help them achieve their goals. Some of these resources include industry publications, conferences with subject matter experts, and industry thinktanks. Some resources are free; others require memberships to access. If you are looking for IT best practices, one of my favorite resources is this one from BMC.

A best practice is not a silver bullet, but it may be the closest thing to one that we have.