Best Practices Considered Harmful

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Best Practices Considered Harmful

What exactly are best practices, and are yours helping or hurting your enterprise? We take a look at possible solutions.

· Agile Zone ·
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I've long worried about "Best Practices." Sure, I usually play along at the time, but lurking in the back of my mind, waiting for a suitable opportunity are two questions:

I was once told by someone from the oil industry that it was common for contracts to specify "best practice" should be used. But seldom was the actual practice specified. Instead, each party to the contract would interpret best practice as they wished, until something went wrong. At that point, after an accident, after money was lost, they would go to court and a judge would decide what was best practice.

Sure, practice X might be the best know way of doing things at the moment, but how much better could it be? By declaring something "best practice," you can be self-limiting and potentially preventing innovation.

Now a piece in MIT Sloan Management Review ("Why Best Practices Often Fall Short," by Jérôme Barthélemy) adds to the debate and highlights a few more problems.

Just for openers, sometimes people mistakenly identify the practice creating the benefits. Apparently, some people looked at Pixar Animation and decided that having restrooms (toilets to us English speakers) in the center of an office floor enhances creativity. They might, but there is so much else happening at Pixar that moving all the toilets in your organization will probably make no difference at all.

But it is worse than that.

Adopting best practices from elsewhere does not mean it will be the best practice in your environment but adopting that "best practice" will be disruptive. Think of all the money you will need to spend relocating the toilets, all the people who will be upset by a desk move they don't want, all the lost productivity while the work is going on.

The author suggests that in some cases that disruption costs are so high the "best practice" will never cover the costs of the change. Organizations are better shunning the best practice and carrying on as they are. (ERP anyone?)

It gets worse.

There is risk in those best practices. Risk that they will cost more, risk that they won't be implemented correctly, and risk that they will backfire. What was the best practice at one organization might not be the best practice in yours. (Which might imply you need even more change, even more disruption, at even more cost.)

In fact, some best practices — like stock options for executives — can go horrendously wrong and induce behaviors you most definitely don't want.

So what is a poor company to do?

Well, the author suggests something that does work: copying good practices. Not best but "just OK." That works. Copy the mundane stuff, the proven stuff. The costs and risks of a big change are avoided. (This sounds a bit like "In Search of Mediocracy.")

In my world, that means you want to be getting better at doing Agile instead of trying to leapfrog Agile and move to DevOps in one bound.

The author also suggests that where your competitive advantage is concerned, keep your cards close to your chest. Do things yourself. Work out what your best practice is, work out how you can improve yourself.

I've long argued that I want teams to learn and learn for themselves rather than have change done to them. But I also want teams to steal. When they see other teams — at home or elsewhere — doing good things, they should steal practices. The important thing from my point of view is for the teams to decide for themselves.

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