Risk aversion is eventually going to drive America into second-class status in our increasingly global economy. Guaranteed outcomes mean lowering our expectations. And lowered expectations lead to mediocrity and sub-par performance.
We need to ask ourselves: what's going on here? (Emphasis added throughout)
Our interest in best practices reflects our growing desire for guaranteed outcomes and a lack of tolerance for risk. But best practices do not provide guaranteed or even reliable outcomes. In fact, they rarely work out the way we have in mind when we copy them. In the comments to my last posting on this subject, there were suggestions that best practices are useful for learning. I can understand that view, but I would challenge it. Best practices typically inhibit real learning by limiting the scope of possible inquiry, i.e., we focus our attention on what we know from the best practice and not on what we don't know, which is typically where things break down and where learning is most needed. Yet we assume the best practice is comprehensive in its handling of the unforeseen because, after all, it's a best practice. Unfortunately, that is virtually never the case, because best practices deal only with the very specific, context dependent problems their originating organizations are trying to solve at any given moment. Most best practices don't produce either genuine insight or foresight until they've broken down or failed altogether.
Whether it’s a sample hotel contract clause or a blueprint for making some big organizational shift, what’s a “best practice” for someone else might be a “worst practice” for your organization. Then again, why reinvent the wheel for the more boilerplate kinds of things and save your energy and creativity for the important stuff? My heart agrees with Jeff, but my head wants a little of one (finding out what others are doing and analyzing how something similar might work for you) and a lot of the other (really digging in to see what you can come up with that’s truly unique to your organization).
Let me put Sue's mind at ease by saying that I think it is fine for colleagues to exchange tools, templates and forms to save limited time and the duplication of efforts. My concern emerges when we treat such reusable resources as the Holy Grail rather than simply as helpful knowledge artifacts. Recycling is good for the environment, to be sure, but it isn't a strategy for creating new, transformative value for members, customers and stakeholders. There are no shortcuts to achieving long-term success, no matter how fervently we may hope to find them.
Back in 2001, I published a pretty controversial article in Executive Update titled, "Destroy Mediocrity." Some people, including my executive director at the time, were pretty upset with me over it. And while more than four years have passed since the article appeared in print and the criticisms of that time have faded from memory, the words I wrote then are just as true in 2005:
This picture [is] different from the one that we see in associations today, in which new thinking is rarely embraced, talent is rarely rewarded, and innovation is rarely discussed. In associations we are content to do things in much the same way we have always done them, perhaps with some changes around the margin. When we do try to effect more significant change, it is rarely on the basis of original ideas. More likely, it is a "best practice" copied from another association and grafted onto the existing situation without serious reflection on whether it will work. In some organizations, change is abandoned altogether because of board paralysis or simple fear that the members will not accept the change, and the organization will suffer accordingly.
These conditions are neither tolerable nor sustainable. Our need for guaranteed outcomes and our passion for best practices will continue to diminish our organizations and severely damage their prospects for the future. Next-generation association leaders must take a more strategic view than their predecessors, and declare best practices are the enemy of genuine innovation, in much the same manner that author Jim Collins declared, "good is the enemy of great." If they don't, then we should ask them, "What's going on here?"