When Is a Best Practice Not Actually “Best” for Your Organization?
As organizations grow and scale, there can be pressure to identify and implement external best practices, but in doing so, the organization can lose its identity, culture, and purpose.
Best Practices Are a Starting Point
Best practices should serve as a starting point rather than the end goal. There's value in learning from others, understanding what often works, and using those insights as a guide to get where we need to go efficiently. Organizational effectiveness and scale rely on the implementation of predictable, repeatable processes. However, by remembering that best practices are more often standard practices, we can think critically about the problems we are truly solving and more accurately identify the best way forward for us. Sometimes the best thing is to be different and set apart.
Below, I discuss five challenges associated with organizational best practices — along with five tips for making best practices work for you.
“Best Practice” May Be a Misnomer
The word best implies a value judgment, as if that practice has been considered against all other possible practices and judged to be supreme. A more accurate name might be "common practice." Standard practices may have become common because they work, but what is "best" in one situation is not necessarily the best for all. Too often, organizations attempt to copy what was a best practice in one time, place, or organization and paste it into their organization, expecting the same results without necessarily understanding the nuance that made it effective in the first place
Best Practices Can Shut Down the Conversation
Once something is deemed a best practice, it eliminates the opportunity for continual and incremental improvement. When common practice is labeled best practice, it can limit openness to new ideas, technology, or applications. This limiting belief can create fixed mindsets among leaders, turf wars among teams, and unnecessary defensiveness rather than fostering an environment that encourages people to constantly share ideas about how to improve.
Best Practices Can Limit Connection
Will Guidara shared a story in his book Unreasonable Hospitality, The Remarkable Power of Giving People More Than They Expect in which his restaurant introduced a new menu accompanied by an elaborate script memorized and performed by the waitstaff. Ultimately, it didn't work because the focus on delivery, excellence, and consistency related to the script created a barrier between the staff and guests. The book is about shifting from a service economy to a hospitality economy. When best practices box people in, they can create unintended consequences that hinder our team's ability to foster connection and form an essential sense of being seen and valued.
Best Practices Often Put Process First
A mentor used to say, "Plans change, but the vision remains the same." The direction and purpose should be constant, but how we bring that to life is always up for review. In organizations that place best practices on a pedestal, those “best practices” often focus on the plan or means of execution, which can create blind spots and hinder necessary agility. Leaders can fall in love with how they do something and lose sight of why the work matters or what creates value inside and outside the organization.
Best Practices Are a Regression to the Mean
Adopting best practices creates a race to the middle. At times, becoming average is an improvement. Pursuing the standard can be an effective strategy for organizational hygiene factors that would create frustration if missing but will not create an exceptional experience when we over-deliver. If an organization or individual seeks to be the best in the world at something, they will implement many best practices along the way — but best practices alone will not get them there. Best practices ensure a company is up to par, but to be exceptional, they need to know when, where, and how to part with conventional wisdom.
With these five challenges in mind, let’s consider five ways to evaluate, adapt, and adopt best practices.
#1: Focus on Purpose
The Golden Circle model from Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why explains “why” is at the center, surrounded by “how” and then “what.” Best practices often address the questions of how and what, but unless we are clear on the purpose, they can be misapplied. Best practices enable organizations to operate efficiently and effectively at scale. Negative employee and customer exchanges are too often the result of ‘best practices’ that create off-brand experiences because they’re not anchored in a clear purpose.
#2: Context Is Key
Best practices can go off the rails when leaders attempt to copy and paste processes without consideration for the business model, environment, and organization. Moreover, a best practice in one organization is not guaranteed to work in another. Consultants love the saying, "It depends…" but that's because the right approach will depend on the organizational, environmental, market, and relational context.
#3: Create Alignment
When evaluating a best practice, ask whether it helps the organization deliver on the brand promise and demonstrate the values, or, alternatively, will it hold us back from that work? Organizations need to manage expectations for customers and employees. Best practices that do not align with the organization's stated values create experiences that fall short of those expectations and increase waste, frustration, and disappointment for those inside and outside of the organization.
#4: Solicit, Evaluate, and Incorporate Feedback
In Radical Candor, Kim Scott talks about the importance of managers actively soliciting feedback from their teams. This goes beyond being open to feedback if it comes. Actively soliciting feedback helps shape an organizational culture where feedback is the norm. Gathering and responding to feedback is a critical step in managing best practices. The people closest to the work often have unique knowledge and insight into what is working, what isn't, and how things can continually improve. Organizations should not adopt a "set it and forget it" attitude toward best practices. Given the ever-changing business landscape, processes that allow for feedback from stakeholders help foster buy-in and ensure best practices remain effective. For example, Perceptyx’s Dialogue product is a powerful, interactive way organizations can solicit feedback through digital crowdsourcing.
#5: Set Up Guardrails, Not Barriers
Perception matters when it comes to the implementation of best practices. If the processes create efficiency and effectiveness, it adds value. But when the rules feel rigid and disconnected from customers' and employees' needs, they can cause problems. For example, consider the guardrails on the side of a freeway. Those exist to keep drivers moving safely in a consistent direction. They would be a disaster if installed perpendicular to the traffic flow.
At their best, these practices are tools to bring about organizational effectiveness in service of a clear and compelling vision. At their worst, best practices box people in and eliminate agency and autonomy. By focusing on purpose, considering context, creating alignment and actively soliciting feedback from stakeholders, we can design, implement, and maintain best practices that allow for positively differentiated experiences and sustainable advantage. True best practices enable us to stand out, rather than blend in with the crowd.
Perceptyx Can Help You Recognize Which Practices Really Are Best
To accurately determine which practices are best suited to your organization, access to precise employee listening data is indispensable. As a trusted listening partner, Perceptyx can assist your organization in facilitating the essential dialogues required to thoroughly understand which practices drive exceptional outcomes in the workplace and which may impede progress.
For a more in-depth exploration of Perceptyx's employee listening research, download the comprehensive State of Employee Listening report. To assess your organization's specific position on the employee listening maturity spectrum, we invite you to complete our interactive Maturity Model assessment. Once finished, you’ll receive a detailed analysis of your program's unique strengths and areas for enhancement, accompanied by personalized recommendations to advance your strategy.