zach beach danceCreativity thrives in wide open spaces and impossible constraints.

Best practices are all about playing it safe and avoiding risk, failure, and conflict.

You can’t have it both ways.

Best practices are about policies and rules. All you get with policies and rules is more policies and rules.

Then someone has to enforce the policies and rules.

Then there has to be procedures for people who ignore or break the rules.

Then pretty soon, work becomes all about the procedures and rules.

And that sucks.

But, you say: Shouldn’t we learn from others and determine the most effective way to reach our goals, benchmark our progress, and achieve success?

Sure, go right ahead. If you want to do what other people were doing last year, spend a lot of time navel gazing, and define success according to conventional standards. Maybe you do. (And maybe you are also an A student with lots of certificates on your walls, who drives and wears all the right brands, and is still wondering why you are not happy.)

Conventional wisdom is just conventional. Best practices are only best if you’re just practicing. And I have no clue what a benchmark really is, or what you do with one.

Instead of worrying if you are doing it right, figure out what works for you. It may require that you make mistakes, take extra time, make a mess, be uncertain, and take risks. But you will figure it out. And it probably won’t be any thing like you imagined at the beginning. Because creativity works like that.

So instead of adding more rules and procedures, see which ones you can subtract. (If you need help, start with The Laws of Subtraction: How to Innovate in the Age of Excess Everything by Matthew E. May.)

If that sounds too scary, then start by imagining what would happen if  your employees were focused on doing great work instead of conforming to best practices?

“Don’t look at your feet to see if you’re doing it right, just dance.”  Anne Lamott.

  • Ron Webb

    Heather, I appreciate your post, but have to respectfully disagree with you on your assertion that best practices suck.

    The bureaucracy you describe that is governed and managed by policy and procedure does suck, but that isn’t what finding best practices are all about. It’s not about learning what someone did last year and replicating that within your organization. That can’t happen because organizations aren’t “plug-n-play”. Ever organization has a different culture, management philosophy, IT infrastructure, etc.

    Learning from best practices isn’t just about examining what other organizations are doing (or have done). It’s about learning what equipped them to be able to perform that way, determining what would work best in your organization, and accelerating learning and performance.

    I like the theory you describe when you state readers should, “…make mistakes, take extra time, make a mess, be uncertain, and take risks…”, but, in my experience that results in minimal, incremental improvements. Markets move fast, small improvements leave you further behind.

    Best practices are about using what is known to make something game changing that fits within your organization, not examining the past to see if that might work for you.

    I’d love to hear your comments.

  • Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

    “Using what is known to make something game changing that fits within your organization” is great. And I’m in favor of it. There is no reason to reinvent the wheel every time. But I don’t see best practices being used that way. I see it used as a buzz word for avoiding risk and change.

    What you describe is usually called progress, and sometimes innovation.

  • Tim Sackett

    Heather –

    I love your point of view on this – I had a similar one back in January – Which Best Practice Will Ruin Your HR Shop This Year:

    Nice Post,

  • Thanks for the link to your piece. It’s great articulation about why you should rethink how you use best practices, without completely condemning the concept.

  • Ron Webb

    Heather, we are probably just misaligned in our nominclature. One organization’s “best practice” is another organization’s “innovation”.
    We see best practice research done more-often-than-not to specifically drive or direct innovation efforts.

  • Questions1st

    Best practices don’t suck. they actually are quite useful for most employees, especially for jobs that don’t require a lot of creativity (I don’t have numbers but i have a feeling that this represents more than 80% of all jobs). Not to mention that many managers don’t like creative people and prefer those who follow instructions.

    For the other 20%, i agree that best practices are not very useful and can actually have a negative impact on the productivity of the employees.

    My question is: why write about the 20% only? Are they more important than the other 80%? Should companies focus only on 20% and ignore the 80%?

  • Questions1st

    i tend to agree with Ron. best practices aren’t always about innovation or progress. for instance, here’s one example of best practice in wholesales and distribution: Implement a vendor compliance program

    is this innovative or progressive? no, it’s just something that may help, if implemented and used properly. it may not help at all if you don’t do it right, but many companies in the industry benefited from using it

    also, you may not need it at all. best practices can help but only if you understand which ones will apply to you and implement them properly

  • I really appreciate your comments and points. And I think both you and Ron are right that there are many instances where knowing the best technique or process, or even approach, is useful. I also agree that not all jobs or work require creativity or innovation. Many things require absolute precision and doing it one correct way.

    I am concerned about when best practices limit options and creativity because a company is focused on avoiding risk and change. I see that a lot in connection with anything involving employment law, social media, employment policies, and often the creation and implementation of software and systems. The system becomes the work, rather than a tool to enhance the work.

    So we are using “best practices” to mean different things because I used an overly broad brush to say they are all bad. And they are not all bad. Thank you for pointing that out.

  • Gerry Crispin

    Is the Law of Subtraction a best practice?

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  • James Kelly Mendaros

    We must based practices on theories.

  • James Kelly Mendaros

    Great post! Best practices are based on theories.

  • James Kelly Mendaros

    When will be your next post heather? Thank you.

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