Best practice: A tool or a crutch?

By | April 18, 2017

I wrote this post 5 years ago.  It is still true today. 

Management consultants use the phrase “best practice” often.  Perhaps too often. You will see that magical phrase mentioned numerous times in white papers and research on these websites: Boston Consulting Group, Deloitte, PWC and Accenture.  A few pictures that help explain why a best practice can be so popular with consultants and clients.

Best practices are like good hiking trails. . .Hiking Trail - Consulting blog

. . . they are market-tested:  Many of these best practices have been around for years. Clients have a sense of comfort that they are following a well-worn path. You don’t have to read the most recent article in Harvard Business Review to know that the Toyota Management System for lean production still works today.

. . . they are repeatable: Consulting firms work with so many clients that they see what works and what does not. Clients think they are unique (n=1), but a lot of the back-office functions are more alike than different. No reason to “re-invent the wheel” on mundane processes. Better to just follow the trail that is already there. McKinsey made a fortune showing all of Europe the M-form organizational structure in the 1960s honed by GM and Dupont.

Some clients demand to see it. They don’t want to be innovative. They want to implement what has worked. Let’s remember, B2B clients can be very risk-averse.

. . . they save time:  It might not be perfect or holistic, but best practices will get you most of the way there. Not all clients want to spend the time or the money to dig into the problem. They want the 80% solution. The Corporate Executive Board (CEB) is a huge resource if you have access through your work.  All kinds of best practice, available to you (as an employee) for free.

Sadly, some consultants can be a bit lazy. Copy/paste what they did before. Sometimes that is appropriate, usually not.

Best practices are like powerful telescopes. . .

Telescope - Consulting blog

. . . they appeal to the curiousClients want insight into what competitors and other leading companies are doing. There is a fine line between best practices, benchmarking, competitive intelligence – but the basic conformist tendency is the same: “Show me what other people doing.”

. . . they help you see farther: Having access to best practices or other “special sauce” positions the management consultant as an expert who can bring new and external insights. While the client can draw on 10-20 years of personal experience, the consultant can tap into the firm’s collective history (for Trekkie fans, think of the BORG) and dig up example after example of previous client projects on the same topic.

Some might argue that this culls the “wisdom of the crowds” so that the best answers surface to the top. No reason to experiment in areas that are more related to operational efficiency. Just work more efficiently. Not thinking, more doing.

Danger: Best practices can also be like cookie cutters. .  .

Cookie Cutter - Consulting Blog

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong (H.L. Mencken)

  • If abused or misunderstood, best practices can become the lazy person’s way to propose a quick, often ill-fitting solution without thinking through the problem
  • Best practices are excellent tools, but you cannot “copy” your way to operational excellence or strategic differentiation.  The most you will get is parity.
  • As an extreme example, in the mid 1980s, McKinsey was consulting 27 of the top 30 German firms. (Source: The Firm, affiliate link)
  • Best practices cannot be simply a cut/paste into an organization.  They do not work without the necessary leadership, culture, resources, IT systems etc. . .
  • Large ERP implementations (read: SAP, Oracle etc) force companies to adopt industry-standard processes. Whether these are best practices is up for debate.
Have you used the phrase "best practice" in the last month?

Photo credit: Kid Cowboy, Flikr creative commons; Pale Side of Insomnia, Flikr, creative commons

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