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Why best practice is bad practice


This is a guest post by Dr Gavin Symanowitz of FeedbackRocket.com. It originally appeared in Finweek Magazine (19 July 2012 issue).


The cute blonde sitting at the bar had been casting furtive glances at us all night. Of course, it wasn’t for me or my mate Ted. It was for Pete. It was always for Pete. Pete was one of those really good-lucking guys who picked up girls effortlessly everywhere he went. It was no different this time. Pete sauntered up to her and whispered something in her ear. She giggled, flicked her hair back flirtatiously, and the two of them left the bar together.

One day, Ted decided he’d had enough of sitting alone at the bar, and asked Pete what his secret was. “What do you actually say to the girl when you go up to her?”

“I’ve got one pickup line that works every time” replied Pete.

“What is it?” shouted Ted.

Pete lowered his voice. “Is that a mirror in your pocket? Cause I can definitely see myself in your pants.”

Ted jumped up excitedly, as one would after discovering the Holy Grail of dating success. “I need to try that.”

Of course, the results were as predictable as they were tragic. “What went wrong?”, asked Ted, exasperated, as he sat back at the bar nursing the fresh slap across the cheek he had received from the brunette on the dance-floor. “Dunno”, replied Pete, “maybe you’re not saying it right.”

Maybe Pete was right. Maybe it didn’t work because Ted didn’t quite get the nuances right. Or maybe it didn’t work because Ted was butt-ugly, and became a nervous wreck every time he came within talking distance of a pretty girl. You decide.

How could Ted be so stupid? How could he not realise that Pete’s success had nothing to do with a cheesy pick-up line? It seems so obvious. Yet this is what is happening in businesses throughout the world every day – and the bigger the business the worse it is. It’s called “blindly following best practice”.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines “best practice” as “a working method which is officially accepted as being the best to use in a particular business or industry”. It is a buzzword which has grown enormously in popularity in recent years, and it drives me mad.

My definition is somewhat different – best practice involves copying policies and procedures from other companies that seem to have produced good results. There is nothing wrong with this, provided that the company is sure that the results were produced as a direct result of the policy or procedure put in place. The problem is that, like Ted, most companies don’t realise that there may be crucial extraneous factors that have a significant impact on the observed successful outcome.

It’s the old correlation vs causation problem – it’s not always obvious what the real drivers of a successful outcome are. In the absence of any real insight, we tend to attach significance to factors that may have nothing at all to do with the true underlying cause. In fact, this is the basis for superstitious beliefs world-wide.

Every company is different. It doesn’t follow that what worked for one company – with its own unique culture, location, and established practices – will work for another completely different company.

What most companies don’t realise is that following best practice is, by definition, a copycat strategy. It is an implicit admission that the company will never be a leader in its field. It is content to play catch-up, relying on its competitors to blaze the way forward. Best practice destroys innovation.

So why do companies do it? Because it’s safe. No-one ever got fired for following best practice. Sadly. Following best practice also covers up incompetence. If I don’t know what to do, my best bet is to copy what seems to have worked well for my competitor. As long as we’re not falling behind our competitors then it means I must be doing my job well – even if I actually don’t have a clue.

So what can be done about it? The solution is simple. Stop following best practice blindly. Stop hiring management consultants who default to best practice so they can apply their cookie-cutter approach to maximize their fees. And stop hiring people who are more concerned about covering their ass than about making a difference.

Unless you’re happy with mediocrity. You decide.

Dr. Gavin Symanowitz is the founder of FeedbackRocket.com, an award-winning online innovation that enables management feedback.

Author: Colette Symanowitz

Director of FraudCracker. Passionate about entrepreneurship, personal branding and networking. I also tweet under @FraudCracker

3 thoughts on “Why best practice is bad practice

  1. Totally agree with your assessment. There are several variables in the equation and when you try to adopt best practices, you have to look at all the variables before you change the environment.

  2. Very good, reminds me of a war tale: the French sent a spy to the Prussian army, to find out how they were so strong. After six months on the field, he come backs. “the secret” he says “is to shave. The army is obliged to shave – no beard, very well trimmed hair”. That’s the power of benchmarking! 🙂

  3. Thanks Ajay.

    Interesting example, Alexandre, thanks for sharing!

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