Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Sad Truth About Best Practices

… is that most of the time, they won’t work for you or me. They worked for somebody, some time, in some situation, in the past. Sure, the idea of best practices is attractive. Supposedly you or I can follow along, obediently, and succeed using so-called best practices. Too bad it doesn’t work.
For example, Jim Collins’ blockbuster business book Good to Great, published in 2001, featured 11 supposedly great companies. All of them did extraordinarily well on the stock market for 10-20 years. But by 2008, when Steven Levitt posted Good to Great to Below Average on Freakonomics, two of them had died. He wrote:
Nine of the eleven companies remain more or less intact. Of these, Nucor is the only one that has dramatically outperformed the stock market since the book came out. Abbott Labs and Wells Fargo have done okay. Overall, a portfolio of the “good to great” companies looks like it would have underperformed the S&P 500.
I don’t mean to criticize Jim Collins, his book, or his methodology. I do mean to question the whole idea of so-called best practices. There are so many built-in problems. What works in one case is hard to translate to the next case. It’s different times, places, people, resources, problems, and so forth.
The best use of the so-called best practices is as generator of new practices, new ideas, new possibilities for you, in your business, that you might be able to take in, digest, and adopt to your situation. It’s a lot like business cases and business stories, not intended as recipes to be followed, but rather as examples of what other people did.
However, you have to be careful. Don’t ever just blindly follow. You always think about it, consider the options, how it might be different in your case, and then, if it still sounds good, try it. Carefully.
If I ever give you any advice, I want you to please never take it without thinking first, analyzing, and deciding for yourself whether or not, and how, and to what extent what I say fits your situation.