An article by Tom Puthiyamadam at strategy+business blogs states that Best Practices Are Dead (from Nov 2017). The general claim should be fairly familiar: best practices emphasize improvements to the mean - doing what everyone is doing. Puthiyamadam says that this is delivering less and less value for people implementing the practices, and also for the people who bring them, consultants.
This article focuses on changes that are happening all around us, heavily influenced by technology. The old best practices that have always worked tend to get in the way when the underlying operating rules and principles have changed.
The thing that I thought of while reading the piece was the dual-edge nature of best practices. If my practices are holding me back, then borrowing from what other people and companies do can have a significant impact. However, if I am already satisfied with my current practices, and then I bring in new tools to support me, those practices can easily get in the way of getting the true benefits from these new tools.
My favorite example is the rollout of enterprise accounting systems. In the bad old days, accounting departments ruled the roost at the end of the month / quarter / year. The books had to be closed. No one could disturb these people. All data must be collected. Etc. Etc. But now? We have enterprise-wide accounting. Surely the data is all just sitting there at our fingertips and these closing circuses could stop. Sadly, for the most part that hasn't happened. There are a few companies who provide daily data to their CEO's, but those are few and far between. The practice of the close hasn't changed, so it continues. Even though there are tools which enable it to stop.
I really like the questions that Theory of Constraints teaches as teh "questions for technology". I've mentioned them a number of times previously, but again:
- What is the power of this technology? Why is it so great? What does it enable a business to do that it could not do previously (or to stop doing)?
- What current limitation or barrier (or practice) does the new technology eliminate or vastly reduce? This helps to understand to some extent the value. If we eliminate the barrier, what does it enable us to do?
- What policies, norms and behavior patterns are used today to bypass the limitation? What practices have we created because the limitation exists?
- What policies, norms and behavior patterns should be used once the new technology is in place? If we eliminate the barrier, how should those practices change? What new practices must be created?
- Having thought through that, are there changes to be made to the technology?
If all we are doing is implementing some cool new technology, is that sufficient to create a lasting change in the organization? I see it a lot with Critical Chain Project Management - it's all about the project planning software! Except that if the underlying behaviors don't change, the software isn't going to amount to a hill of beans.
So... Best practices come and go. We need to have the right practices that fit with our current way of doing business. And if fundamental assumptions behind those practices change, then the practices themselves need to be reevaluated.