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Be Very Wary of Best Practices and Case Studies

by Allen Weiss  |  
January 13, 2004

I was recently part of a meeting where the topic of discussion was a possible reorganization plan. But this was in a university, where—unlike in most companies—reorganizations don't happen very often (thank goodness).

As usual, someone suggested we do a “best practice” investigation by identifying how the other major schools were organized. The problem is, though, that the major schools are organized in several various ways, and there is no particular “best” practice.

Frankly, I've always thought that publicizing the “best practice” idea was simply a way to sell conference tickets and books. The problem, as I see it, is that it's not clear what it means for some practice to be “best”? Best at what? And by what standard? What's best for me might not be best for you, and so on.

But rather than relying on my personal opinion and conjectures about the problem at hand, we had the fortune of having a well-known research colleague who knew the data on organizational structures extremely well. If there really were a best practice, then it would have been borne out over thousands of careful empirical studies and observations. So we asked him what had been learned that we could apply right now.

Our colleague reflected on the question and said careful research shows that the best way to organize a department or business depends on… drum roll, please… what problem you are trying to solve.

Are you trying to solve conflicts between departments, or solve a problem with communications, and so on? The point is that it depends on your specific organization and your specific situation. In short, the concept of best practice was nonsense.

If Johnny Jumped Off a Cliff

This story reminds me of a warning I received when I was young—your parents probably said something like this to you, too (after you did something stupid with friends)—“If Johnny jumped off a cliff, does that mean you should too?”

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Allen Weiss founded MarketingProfs in 2000 and continues to provide strategic direction for the company as CEO. He's currently a professor of marketing at the University of Southern California and teaches mindfulness in companies at InsightLA.

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