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Best Practices: Greatest Friend or Worst Enemy?

There are a number of articles about the power of "best practices", but I'm equally interested in the ones that say using best practices is bad for business. 

A good article in Fast Company by Shane Snow starts the story of entrepreneur Debbi Fields who bucked the best practice of making crunchy chocolate chip cookies (remember Chips Ahoy!). She changed the old standard with a new soft chewy cookie. She initially got turned down for a business loan because she wasn't fitting the mold, no pun intended. She did eventually find funding, shook the herd mentality, and now her company Mrs. Fields sells cookies across 33 countries.

When best PRACTICES are your Worst Enemy

This Fast Company article goes on to say that "Best practices don't make you best. They make you the average." In other words, if Debbi Fields went on with crunchy cookies, then she would have blended in with the rest of the crunchers and would never have succeeded.

In this scenario, Nabisco, who markets Chips Ahoy!, got side-swept by the newcomer and lost market share, mainly because Nabisco got too comfortable with their best practice formula. Any other new cookie startup using Nabisco's formula would be as bland as the rest and not make more chips.

Another interesting article by Luis Suarez states "Best Practices are the worst thing you can apply to any kind of knowledge work." He points out from another writer that you can't copy a "best practice" from one company to another because it would, "turn itself, over time, into a common practice". Keep that last part in mind.

What I hate about headers like these is that a reader may skim and then move on thinking, "well there you go, experts are saying I shouldn't use best practices." I have spoken a lot about the value of best practices over the years and I often bump up against people who are naysayers, claiming best practices can't be used as they don't allow flexibility.

I think the problem is in how we define the words "best practices". These articles make more sense later as they explain that if you consider your best practice as static, fixed, inflexible, and perfect, then you're screwed. What they mean is that a best practice may not stay best for very long, whether it was best for your own situation or best for an entire industry. 

In the project management and product management world, a best practice lifespan may be best for only a month, a week, or even a day! I hear about examples of project teams who stick to their guidelines and apply a framework religiously over long periods, only to be faced with continued failing project results. What they don't realize is their best practices fail because of key factors like:

  • Using the same best practice for different projects where it doesn't add value;
  • Applying the same best practice industry peers use, never exploring other industries;
  • Having a culture that pushes best practices without engaging teams to improve them;
  • Not explaining what "best" means in best practice and how it should be short-lived and taken over by the next best.

Which brings us to the crux of the issue: should we stop using best practices? 
 

When best PRACTICES are your Best Friend

I say we should use best practices providing they are fast changing for the better. It may be the "best" we can do today on Monday, but no longer the best tomorrow on Tuesday, as tomorrow's tweak from lessons learned just made it better. 

Mrs. Fields showed how an industry best practice can change. Another example is the automotive industry. You know the Henry Ford story. He drastically changed the manual manufacturing way of one worker needing to learn how to build every part and produce few, to a more efficient worker who specializes in one thing and produces many. This became the new norm, or best practice in car manufacturing until Toyota innovated with the flexible assembly line in the 1980s. Toyota came out of nowhere taking a lead in the US car market. Then, as they were setting new best practices, they didn't stop. They continuously overhauled showing how new changes could cut 50% in cost to add or switch car models, again, leading the market.

Let's get out of our traps when it comes to applying Best Practices to our projects.

  • Apply a framework that evolves and keeps up with innovation, staying fresh;
  • Don't follow the pack, stand out, and blow past the competition.

It's not about sticking to the traditional best practice ground rules, but making the ground rules clear that we should be constantly innovating so the best today becomes obsolete because we have a new best tomorrow.

Good projects follow guidelines and apply them with a frame of reference, but great projects improve upon those best practices, innovating beyond those guidelines.
 

From good projects to great projects

Innovating beyond best bractices doesn't mean that you have to reinvent the wheel. Small tweaks here and there are all that's really needed to make a process better. But innovation doesn't just happen on its own, it needs a little bit of a push. By implementing the following elements into your project's framework and your teams' culture, you'll be ready to brew innovation:

Ask questions

Creative solutions are triggered by questions for which we don't have answers yet. It's while we're racking our brains specifically for those answers that we stumble upon innovation. Remeber: a question isn't necessarily a critique. We need to create a team culture that is open to questions, otherwise, innovation can never take place.

Challenge status quo

When things don't go as planned, we have a tendency to assume something went wrong and we need to correct the mistake. But what if those mistakes actually presented an opportunity? By only accepting potential outcomes that are expected, we don't leave ourselves any room to innovate. Think not only about the status quo in the project management industry. Take a lateral view and research opportunities by stealing the status quo of other industry processes, not yet used in project management. You might find some new ideas elsewhere.

Collaborate:

Collaboration and teamwork are an important part of innovation. One person can ask questions, make suggestions and brainstorm potential ideas, but multiple heads are better than one. Project teams are usually made up of people with a wide variety of skills, experience, and knowledge. This vast range of brain power is extremely useful when brainstorming potential improvements. Open up the lines of communication and get people involved: not only will you end up with better results, but the whole team will become more motivated as a result, too.

Try new things:

Failures are simply a path towards success. Each time you try something new - even if it doesn't work out - you learn something. Applying these lessons-learned helps you become better. Our project frameworks should really be composed of their own innovation cycles where from beginning to end, we constantly try something new, learn from it and improve it; try something new, learn from it, improve it, etc. By baking in these micro-cycles into your project's framework, you can easily integrate slight innovations along the way.

 

Best Practices can either be a friend or an enemy. They are an enemy when we neglect to apply the better practices that have evolved from the original best practices or when they themselves don't evolve to market demands. They are our friends when we keep them fresh on a daily and weekly basis, making them a little more more tasty than the last time. Best practices are only "best" if they are indeed innovating and improving.

 

Written by Isabelle Blondin and Paul Dandurand

Photo by Evan Kirby