Why Best Practices Suck

Why Best Practices Suck


Why Best Practices Suck: Best practices are like vampires: They can suck the life out of an organization, kill its productivity, drain its creativity, and bleed its initiative. If you seek perfection in perpetuity, your organization’s learning apparatus will become an animated corpse cursed through the ages to feed on its ancestors.

Every organization documents its best practices. If you compare two of them, superficial similarity soon gives way to contextual and temporal divergence. During a merger or acquisition, both sides offer dozens of best practices for reconciliation. The harsh light of a merger exposes best practices as a source of potential conflict and dysfunction. Those who crafted the best practices realize during their examination that they were vampires of learning, imbibing hopes for productivity gains and consistency while draining their organizations of creativity and initiative.

Want to avoid the lonely path of night-stalking hope after solidifying the ephemeral for all eternity? Then avoid these symptoms so no bells ring the toll on your good practices program.

Why Best Practices Suck

The Thirst

No matter how many fleshy necks of policy or procedure they sink their teeth into, they just can’t get enough. Interview after interview. Flowchart after flowchart. It won’t stop. They don’t know enough. They don’t have enough data. They have too many perspectives to reconcile. They keep digging until their fingernails bleed. No matter how much they learn, they keep seeking more of the same, with each dip into the artery of knowledge nearly the same as the last. The focus keeps them going, but they have lost the ability to synthesize and integrate, to reach beyond the task to see the bigger picture.

The Satiation

As the bloody ink dries on the tome they have created, the electrons coalesce on the website, as the lore is whispered among the initiated to begin the word-of-mouth revelry that only vampires can know, they celebrate the brief satiation. A new Best Practice has been Made. Not nearly as good as turning an initiate, but as the fresh plasma of consolidated knowledge flows through their veins, they revel in the power that comes from creating a lasting legacy that only they could create. The codification of knowledge becomes the altar and the tomb where it will be praised and where it will rest—and where it will ultimately accumulate dust and cobwebs as a testament to its endurance.

Everyone Else Ages

And there the Best Practice stands, perfect and immutable. As the world changes the Best Practice remains inviolate and timeless. All around it, those things that aren’t best age and deteriorate into the detritus of business: flakes of paper and toner, wads of sticky notes, cascades of recycled paper emboldened with DRAFT DRAFT DRAFT. The Best Practice survives. The ravages of time hound its edges and cast aspersions of wind and sand. Being BEST, it neither adapts nor fades, eventually becoming an anachronism, respected maybe, perhaps even feared, but more legend than reality as the old ways become irrelevant in the dawn of new ages. This BEST PRACTICE, once so much the focus of the Thirst, is now little more than an uneasy reminder that other single-minded quests await the same destiny.

True Blood

HBO’s True Blood series revolves around a fictional synthetic blood product, True Blood, that allows vampires to “peaceably” live among humans. But both vampires and humans know True Blood is a fiction within a fiction. True Blood is a lie that society believes to feel good about itself. At best, True Blood offers subsistence in a world of chaos and disruption. And the Best Practice is no different. The Best Practice makes an organization feel a sense of accomplishment and closure. It gives it a focal point for celebrating its hard work. But in a blink, entropy and pandemonium invade again. People can sense the real power: the dynamic, ever-changing flow of knowledge, just below the thin skin of codified policy and practice.

The Best Practice serves as a symbol of the ideal while reality erupts around it in boundless bedlam. In True Blood, the only way to grow is to escape the fiction and toss yourself into the vortex. If you survive, you will have learned more than any cowardly vampire sitting in the shadows sipping from a bottle. The only way to learn in a world of Best Practices is to challenge assumptions, endure the wrath of the mysteries—and in the process, absorb glimpses of the underlying nature of reality directly.

The Enchantment

Although they go by the name of communities of practice sharing conferences, those are just nonsupernatural names for covens of Best Practice. As masses of best practice practitioners gather, they enchant the weak of mind to join them in order to benefit from the ancient and secret knowledge only available through the Best Practices for Customer Acquisition Conference. They dazzle with shiny brochures and offer networking opportunities to meet the leaders of the cult, who, in clandestine meetings, talk poorly about the uninitiated as they collect their money and plan the next event.

The conference leaders only talk about Best Practices in public, never among themselves, because they know Best Practices are a way to draw adherents, to perpetuate the myth, to consolidate power and increase their personal brands. The learning is superficial, a Best Practice of Best Practices. It is designed to create the hunger, to facilitate the momentary satiation and to start the cycle again. In Best Practices, it is always a cycle that becomes increasingly self-referential, an ever-tighter spiral of indulgence, a snake eating its own tail.

Best Practice is a forensic science, an autopsy on a corpse.

Why Best Practice Sucks

Learning is an activity of the living. Millions of good practices can co-exist and co-evolve. But there can only be one Best of Show, Best Record of the Year, or Best Picture. And these never repeat. They are bound to the time of their making.

If you seek perfection in perpetuity, your organization’s learning apparatus will become an animated corpse cursed through the ages to feed on its ancestors.

If you seek perfection in perpetuity, your organization’s learning apparatus will become an animated corpse cursed through the ages to feed on its ancestors.

If you want your organization to excel, resist being led to the graveyard by the cult of Best Practice, to evolve rather than go extinct, don’t think Best Practice, think Best Practice Slayer. Live in the moment as an agile, adaptable human being, open to the possibility that what was true yesterday, may not be true tomorrow. Break the cycle of dusk-till-dawn hunting parties that seek to codify the mundane and the irrelevant and join seekers who see learning as invention and adventure.

A previous version of this article appeared at fastcompany.com under the title 5 Reasons Best Practices Suck.

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Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.

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