Our industry is obsessed with best practice. If you are not at best practice then most commentators will suggest that you probably will not be long in your current role. As a consultant I spent years selling the advantages and importance of best practice to my clients. It was their ticket to superior performance. As a CIO however, I have discovered that best practices as we know them aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Let me explain.
First, the term has become abused and misused. As I understand it best practice represents “a method or technique that has consistently shown results superior to those achieved with other means, and that is used as a benchmark.” Yet every vendor claims that their products and services are best practice. These days most large companies have implemented a ERP and all ERP vendors claim to deliver best practice. But if 90+% of the market have some version of ERP how can it be best practice. Isn’t that common practice? You can’t get “superior results” if you are fundamentally the same as 90% of the market. By the way, I am not trying to pick on ERPs here. This is true of all segments of our market.
Second, I am not aware of any research that shows a correlation between the implementation of best practices across the organisation and organisational performance. The research suggests the opposite. That the best performing organisations are not those that have pervasive best practice implementations but those that know who they are and what they stand for and then focus relentlessly on that differentiation. For example, in “Good to Great” Jim Collins argues that great companies do not do many things well but rather do one thing better than anyone else. He warns that straying too far from a company’s established strengths is likely to be harmful to the attainment of greatness.
Finally, best practices, if they truly are best practices, are not implementable by most organisations. They simply do not have the required capabilities and despite what we may want to believe you cannot simply magic up new capabilities with a training course and slick change management programme. Capabilities are built over time. It’s like running a marathon. You can’t simply decide to do it, put your shoes on and run a “best practice” marathon. You have to train for it and if you are in the sort of physical condition I am, the training most likely starts by turning off Sky Sports and going for a walk and building over time until you can jog consistently and so it goes on. While most people can get to run a marathon after six months of training it takes years of dedication and work to get to world class, to get to best practice. Worse than that if you actually tried to run a marathon (let alone a world class marathon) without doing any training you will likely cause yourself serious harm.
Yet, this is exactly what many companies try to do. A six month project to move us from where we are today to best practice, world class. It doesn’t work. It might get you to novice stage, your first marathon, but that is not best practice. What I learnt as a CIO is that moving toward best practice is a long term journey, and that as the leader of the journey understanding “next practice” is more important than best practice.
Next practice, as the name implies, is the next step you need to take in your journey. Most people can see the next step and believe they can take that next step. Talk to them about some far off best practice and they can’t “see it” and they don’t understand what they can do today to move in the right direction. It’s just too far away, too abstract and not implementable.
So, as a leader, forget best practice. Instead, focus yourself and your team on next practice, know what you stand for and seek to become genuinely better than everyone else in that one thing.