Beyond Best Practices: a paper review and the genesis of a collaboration
The fundamental premise behind best practices is that it is possible to reproduce the successes of those who excel by imitating them. At first sight this assumption seems obvious and uncontroversial. However, most people who have lived through an implementation of a best practice know that following such prescriptions does not guarantee success. Actually, anecdotal evidence suggests the contrary: that most attempts at implementing best practices fail. This paradox remains unnoticed by managers and executives who continue to commit their organisations to implementing best practices that are, at best, of dubious value.
Why do best practices fail? There has been a fair bit of research on the shortcomings of best practices, and the one thing it tells us is that there is no simple answer to this question. In this post I’ll discuss this issue, drawing upon an old (but still very relevant) paper by Jonathan Wareham and Han Cerrits entitled, De-Contextualising Competence: Can Best Practice be Bundled and Sold. Note that I will not cover the paper in its entirety; my discussion will focus only on those aspects that relate to the question raised above.
I may as well say it here: I have a secondary aim (or more accurately, a vested interest) in discussing this paper. Over the last few months Paul Culmsee and I have been working on a book that discusses reasons why best practices fail and proposes some practical techniques to address their shortcomings. I’ll end this post with a brief discussion of the background and content of the book (see this post for Paul’s take on the book). But let’s look at the paper first…
On the first page of the paper the authors state:
Although the concept of ‘imitating excellent performers’ may seem quite banal at first glance, the issue, as we will argue, is not altogether that simple after deeper consideration. Accordingly, the purpose of the paper is to explore many of the fundamental, often unquestioned, assumptions which underlie the philosophy and application of Business Best Practice transfer. In illuminating the central empirical and theoretical problems of this emerging discipline, we hope to refine our expectations of what the technique can yield, as well as contribute to theory and the improvement of practice.
One of the most valuable aspects of the paper is that it lists some of the implicit assumptions that are often glossed over by consultants and others who sell and implement best practice methodologies. It turns out that these assumptions are not valid in most practical situations, which renders the practices themselves worthless.
The implicit assumptions
According to Wareham and Cerrits, the unstated premises behind best practices include:
- Homogeneity of organisations: Most textbooks and courses on best practices present the practices as though they have an existence that is independent of organizational context. Put another way: they assume that all organisations are essentially the same. Clearly, this isn’t the case – organisations are defined by their differences.
- Universal yardstick: Best practices assume that there is a universal definition of what’s best, that what’s best for one is best for all others. This assumption is clearly false as organisations have different (dare I say, unique) environments, objectives and strategies. How can a universal definition of “best” fit all?
- Transferability: Another tacit assumption in the best practice business is that practices can be transplanted on to receiving organisations wholesale. Sure, in recent years it has been recognized that such transplants are successful only if a) the recipient organisation undertakes the changes necessary for the transplant to work and b) the practice itself is adapted to the recipient organisation. The point is in most successful cases, the change or adaptation is so great that it no longer resembles that original best practice. This is an important point – to have a hope in hell of working, best practices have to be adapted extensively. It is also worth mentioning that such adaptations will succeed only if they are made in consultation with those who will be affected by the practices. I’ll say more about this later in this post
- Alienability and stickiness: These are concepts that relate to the possibility of extracting relevant knowledge pertaining to a best practice from a source and transferring it without change to a recipient. Alienability refers to the possibility of extracting relevant knowledge from the source. Alienability is difficult because best practice knowledge is often tacit, and is therefore difficult to codify. Stickiness refers to the willingness of the recipient to learn this knowledge, and his or her ability to absorb it. Stickiness highlights the importance of obtaining employee buy-in before implementing best practices. Unfortunately most best practice implementations gloss over the issues of alienability and stickiness.
- Validation: Wareham and Cerrits contend that best practices are rarely validated. More often than not, recipient organisations simply believe that they will work, based on their consultants’ marketing spiel. See this short piece by Paul Strassman for more on the dangers of doing so.
What does “best” mean anyway?
After listing the implicit assumptions, Wareham and Cerrits argue that the conceptual basis for defining a particular practice as being “best” is weak. Their argument hinges on the observation that it is impossible to attribute the superior performance of a firm to specific managerial practices. Why? Well, because one cannot perform a control experiment to see what would happen if those practices weren’t used.
Related to the above is the somewhat subtle point that it is impossible to say, with certainty, whether practices, as they exist within model organisations, are consequences of well-thought out managerial action or whether they are merely adaptations to changing environments. If the latter were true, then there is no best practice, because the practices as they exist in model organisations are essentially random responses to organizational stimuli.
Wareham and Cerrits also present an economic perspective on best practice acquisition and transfer, but I’ll omit this as it isn’t of direct relevance to the question of why best practices fail.
The authors draw the following conclusions from their analysis:
- The very definition of best practices is fraught with pitfalls.
- Environmental factors have a significant effect on the evolution and transfer(ability) of “best” practices. Consequently, what works in one organisation may not work in another.
So, can anything be salvaged? Wareham and Cerrits think so. They suggest an expanded view of best practices which includes things such as:
- Using best practices as guides for learning new technologies or new ways of working.
- Using best practices to generate creative insight into how business processes work in practice.
- Using best practices as a guide for change – that is, following the high-level steps, but not necessarily the detailed prescriptions.
These are indeed sensible and reasonable statements. However, they are much weaker than the usual hyperbole-laden claims that accompany best practices.
Cerrits and Johnson focus on the practices themselves, not the problems they are used to solve. In my opinion, another key reason why best practices fail is that they are applied without a comprehensive understanding of the problem that they are intended to address.
I’ll clarify this using an example: in a quest to improve efficiency an organisation might go through a major restructure. All too often, such organisations will not think through all the consequences of the restructuring (what are the long-term consequences of outsourcing certain functions, for instance). The important point to realize is that a comprehensive understanding of the consequences is possible only if all stakeholders – management and employees – are involved in planning the restructure. Unfortunately, such a bottom-up approach is rarely taken because of the effort involved, and the wrong-headed perception that chaos may ensue from management actually talking to people on the metaphorical shop floor. So most organizations take a top-down approach, dictating what will be done, with little or no employee involvement.
Organisations focus on how to achieve a particular end. The end itself, the reasons for wanting to achieve it and the consequences of doing so remain unexplored; it is assumed that these are obvious to all stakeholders. To put it in aphoristically: organizations focus on the “how” not the on the “what” or why.”
The heart of the matter
The key to understanding why best practices do not work is to realise that many organizational problems are wicked problems: i.e., problems that are hard to define, let alone solve’s (see this paper for a comprehensive discussion of wicked problems). Let’s look at organizational efficiency, for example. What does it really mean to improve organizational efficiency? More to the point, how can one arrive at a generally agreed way to improve organizational efficiency? By generally agreed, I mean a measure that all stakeholders understand and agree on. Note that “efficiency “is just an example here – the same holds for most other matters of strategic importance to organizations: organisational strategy is a wicked problem.
Since wicked problems are hard to pin down (because they mean different things to different people), the first step to solving them is to ensure that all stakeholders have a common (or shared) understanding of what the problem is. The next step is to achieve a shared commitment to solving that problem. Any technique that could help achieve a shared understanding of wicked problems and commitment to solving them would truly deserve to be called the one best practice to rule them all.
The genesis of a collaboration
About a year ago, in a series of landmark posts entitled The One Best Practice to Rule Them All, Paul Culmsee wrote about his search for a practical method to manage wicked problems. In the articles he made a convincing case that dialogue mapping can help a diverse group of stakeholders achieve a shared understanding of such problems. Paul’s writings inspired me to learn dialogue mapping and use it at work. I was impressed – here, finally, was a technique that didn’t claim to be a best practice, but had the potential to address some of the really complex problems that organisations face.
Since then, Paul and I have had several conversations about the failure of best practices in to tackling issues ranging from organizational change to project management. Paul is one of those rare practitioners with an excellent grounding in theory and practice. I learnt a lot from him in those conversations. Among other things, he told me about his experiences in using dialogue mapping to tackle apparently intractable problems (see this case study from Paul’s company, for example).
Late last year, we thought of writing up some of the things we’d been talking about in a series of joint blog posts. Soon we realised that we had much more to say than would fit into a series of posts – we probably had enough for a book. We’re a few months into writing that book, and are quite pleased with the way it’s turning out.
Here’s a very brief summary of the book. The first part analyses why best practices fail. Our analysis touches upon diverse areas like organizational rhetoric, cognitive bias, memetics and scientific management (topics that both Paul and I have written about on our blogs). The second part of the book presents a series of case studies that illustrate some techniques that address complex problems that organizations face. The case studies are based on our experiences in using dialogue mapping and other techniques to tackle wicked problems relating to organizational strategy and project management. The techniques we discuss go beyond the rhetoric of best practices – they work because they use a bottom-up approach that takes into account the context and environment in which the problems live.
Now, Paul writes way better than I do. For one, his writing is laugh-out-loud funny, mine isn’t. Those who have read his work and mine may be wondering how our very different styles will combine. I’m delighted to report that the book is way more conversational and entertaining than my blog posts. However, I should also emphasise that we are trying to be as rigorous as we can by backing up our claims by references to research papers and/or case studies.
We’re learning a lot in the process of writing, and are enthused and excited about the book . Please stay tuned – we’ll post occasional updates on how it is progressing.
Update (16 June 2010):
An excerpt from the book has been published here.
Update (27 Nov 2011):
The book, which has a new title, is currently in the final round of proofs. Hopefully it will be available for pre-order in a month or two.
Update (05 Dec 2011):