One of the continuing themes in management is the search for best practices. Decades ago Tom Peters popularizing the notion of best practices in The Search for Excellence. Since then consultants, businesses, and academics have poured considerable energy into defining and implementing "best practices".
This is all good, but what if there are no best practices?
Tom Peters has turned from best practice advocate to sceptic. He now believes that the world is too turbulent for best practices to exist. The world also appears a little too turbulent for Peters to write coherent books so summarizing his ideas is difficult. It is fair to say he believes in energetically and innovatively tackling issues as they confront you, rather than looking for what worked once upon a time, someplace else.
A more mainstream view is simply that business situations vary so much that what is a best practice in one company will not be a best practice elsewhere. The implication is companies need to find what works for them rather than look for generic best practices, much the same as Peters' conclusion.
A more profound view is that best practices are not so important because practices of any kind are not so important. Bob Gandossy, author of Leading the Way tells how a manager eagerly toured a really great company to look for lessons, but left unimpressed. She looked at their practices and muttered, "We do all those things." They do the same practices yes, but there was something subtle that differentiated this great company from average ones.
Gandossy, says the subtle difference is beliefs and values. The CEOs in all companies communicate, but the CEOs in great companies honestly believe communication is extremely important. CEOs in all companies will make an appearance at leadership development programs, but the CEOs of great companies spend much more time at - and put more energy into - the programs. Managers who really believe in something may follow the same practices as others, but how they do things is remarkably different.
Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer reaches a similar conclusion. He has written several books (most notably The Human Equation) on best practices in managing people. Yet, when he was asked, "If we do all these things, but donít' really believe it, will it still work?" Pfeffer had to admit the answer was probably no. The great companies really, truly value people. The subtlety of their practice reflects these underlying values.
The question between what matters, values or practices, parallels the debate about what matters, execution or strategy. Strategy, like practices, are the big ideas about what you intend to do. Execution, like values, is reflected in the moment to moment working life of managers. A manager who really cares about who is hired, will always do a better job of hiring than a manager who doesnít value it so much, almost irrespective of which manager follows 'best practice' selection processes.
So, if there are no best practices then how do we decide what to do? Secondly, if values and beliefs really make for great companies how do we get our managers to adopt the right values?
The issue of how to choose the right practices has a straightforward answer. It's a great idea to go around and see what other companies are doing and base your practices on what you learn. The essential point is that you are going out to learn a lot about selection methods or supply chain management or board governance so that you can build better methods. This is entirely different from going out and looking for a best practice to copy.
The second issue is tougher because you can' t do a lot to change underlying values. The implication is that you'd better look hard at the values and beliefs of those you promote to senior positions - rather than just experience and competencies - because it is these underlying factors that create greatness.
While the notion of best practices is unlikely to disappear the arguments against relying on them are compelling. This is lesson is particularly important for countries who look to US management as a model. Sure there are lots of things you can learn from the US. However, simply copying their "best practices" is not the way to go.
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Why oppose practices against values? 'What if there are no best practices?' shouldn't take issue to values lacking but point to the opportunity to create good practice. If practices are documented, reviewed against expectation and put to test in a learning environment, they vastly improve change. In this way, they hold a promise for knowledge management. In my experience exchange of views and learning effects helps to decide on what's best. The process is not easy, for instance because favoured values stand in the way of change. Probably 'subtIety' is required in conducting the interplay of practice and value, more -I think- than Mr. Creelman's demonstrates in his hidden attack on Tom Peter's contribution to management theory.
reading your column I must say I largely agree. I would say that values go much deeper than just "copy-catting" other companies way. Chris Argyris would probably call it "double loop learning" versus "single loop learning". Just acting reactively will hardly be sufficient to operate in a (slightly) changed environment. Operating from basic values however, and the capability of appliying these values in practice, will prove to be far more affective I suppose.
However, there's much to be said for best practices (I guess). Depending on the nature of the business (complexity, volume, differentiation in the branch of trade or discipline) I feel that best practices can be very usefull. The discipline "Service Managment" has have had great benifits from ITIL for instance. Then again, ITIL does not compulsory prescribe anything: A best practice should never dismiss you from being critical I guess. Nonetheless, if relatively firm scoped disciplines or tasks are internally consistant and flexible to interface, I guess a best practice can lead you a long way.
The question you raised in you column is highly essential: How do you manage this? I am sure one can develop a "total quality system" and measure anything. Let's call it the "fearfull way". Prescribe, enmbed and check, then ckeck the checker. Surely we must all admit that this is the way most companies work nowadays and that fear (of being burned down) is working rather affective. But surely you will never get commitment of your people and a flawless system is very hard once people start joining up out of discontent, or even hostility towards "Big Brother". And thus we see (and feel the hurt of) many companies not functioning, people indifferent and the middle management even sabotaging or fraudulent...
Now to the part of values. I believe that wisdom lies inside. We all know damn well what is good and wrong. Sometimes we just excuse our wrong deed be those of others. If we turn this around, I guess good deeds of others can also be catching. In my opinion, the world stopped believing. We think we know how it works and thus resign ourself to "the ways things go". Only when all leaders mobilize the "critical mass" to do otherwise AND PERSIVERE I think we can make a change. Unfortunately, those with the power to mobilize this much people are also the same who benifit from the current "system".
Sorry if this reaction is chaotic and a bit of course. As always, I just "blurred it all out". In the end, your question still stands: How do we get our managers to adopt the right values? I guess just by giving the right example......
by:David Creelman Date:03-23-2004
Good practice creates value Why oppose practices against values? 'What if there are no best practices?' shouldn't take issue to ... Cor de FeyterValues applied Dear David,
reading your column I must say I largely agree. I would say that values go much deeper ... Stefan Block