When I was growing up, I remember reading a story in Reader’s Digest about a young woman preparing a holiday meal. It went something like this:
As this young woman was preparing a holiday ham to go into the oven, her new husband watched as she cut both ends off of the ham before putting it into the pan. This struck him as odd, so he asked, “Why do you cut off the ends of the ham?” She paused for a moment and then replied, “I’m not sure. That’s just how my mom always did it.” They immediately called the young woman’s mother to find out why she cuts the ends off of her ham before putting it into the oven. The mother, too, paused and then replied, “I’m not really sure. That’s what my mother always did so that’s how I’ve always done it.”
Their sparks of curiosity were now fanned into flames, so the young woman called her grandmother to get to the bottom of this mystery. As she shared the reason for her call with her grandmother, her grandmother burst into laughter. After she had finished laughing, the young woman asked what was so funny. “Oh my dear,” the grandmother said still chuckling, “the reason I cut the ends off of my hams was that my pan was too short and I couldn’t fit it in otherwise.”
The lesson I took from this story when I first read it was to always know why I did everything. Later in life, I realized this story is a cautionary tale about how blindly we fall into the trap of best practices at the expense of ourselves and our organizations.
The story of the ham illustrates some key flaws about best practices:
Best practices, by requirement, are old practices.
For a practice to elevate to the status of “best,” it requires that some person or group of people originally created a new practice, often in a large company, and documented the results of the practice over time.
Eventually they share their work with others. People at other organizations hear about the practice and decide to start convincing their own organization to implement this practice. This takes time. Sometimes a lot of time. And this usually happens several times before we even hear about it.
In a business climate where an organization’s ability to adapt and respond to change is a critical competency to survival, turning to “best” practices is like looking to the past for solutions to problems that only exist in the future.
The value of a practice is situational and depends on context.
For Grandma, cutting both ends off of a ham was effective given that her pan was too small to fit the whole ham—a clear best practice for her. As soon as her daughter (who likely had access to a larger pan) began copying this practice, it became wasteful and unnecessary—hardly how we would typically define “best.”
Journals, blogs and conferences highlight “case studies” of success for others to emulate. We hear the stories of what Southwest Airlines, Zappos or Google did to achieve their remarkable success. And our instinct is to take what an organization did and apply that to our own organization without understanding why they did it. This is the equivalent to seeing Grandma cut the ends off of her ham and deciding that’s what I should do, too.
The problem, of course, is that we rarely understand the complex situation in which these practices were designed and implemented. The true value in case studies is to understand the thought process and approach used to arrive at an effective solution, not the solution itself. To do this implies using a strategy most effectively employed by 3-year-olds—to ask “why” over and over and over again.
Related: The Power of Asking Questions
Are All Best Practices Bad?
When something is labeled a best practice, that doesn’t mean it’s not a good idea. It very well might be a useful approach or solution. It’s not the practice itself that is stupid; it’s the need to label it as “best” that’s the problem.
The label “best practice” had made us intellectually lazy. Think about how many times you’ve heard an executive ask the question, “What’s best practice for this kind of situation?” Rather than trust the intuition and skill of our own people to solve a problem, we blindly turn to a solution created by someone else’s team in a totally different context.
Pushing Back on Best Practices
Breaking free from the worship of best practice is a critical first step toward making our teams and organizations more innovative. To do this, here are some simple places to start:
1. Ask why early and often.
If you don’t know why a process or practice is in place (or is being offered as a best practice), ask why and keep asking why until you either find a valid reason or you uncover enough nonsense to toss it out.
2. Get clear on the problem first.
Too often, we get enamored by alleged best practice solutions we’ve heard about at a conference or read in a book, and then we go looking for a place to apply it. Instead, we need to focus first on getting clarity around what problems we are trying to solve, then working to find a solution that makes sense.
3. When something is called a best practice, push back.
When we hear something called a “best practice,” we make a lot of assumptions. When you hear those words, let loose your inner skeptic and start asking questions like:
- Who says this is a best practice?
- What makes it a best practice (i.e. where’s the evidence)?
- How do you know this is right for our situation?
Remember, there is no such thing as a “best practice.” There are only practices. Deciding if it’s best is a decision you should make for yourself.