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The Worst Thing About Best Practices

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A colleague asked me to preview a sales presentation for a customer, and at first glance it looked like a winner. The presentation was short, and it laid out the problem in clear, crisp language. Plus, the product and the implementation team were a great match for the project. I thought, "how refreshing—a jargon-free, informative proposal."

As I reached the section of the presentation describing how the team planned to complete the work, I groaned inwardly: the primary selling point was to rely on the use of "best practices"—supposedly to ensure an innovative solution and a smooth implementation.

"You don't really mean this, do you?"

"Look, the customer says it right here in the request for proposal," my colleague said. "They asked us to bring best practices to the project. We won't win without them."

I resisted the urge to scream.


Few "tools" are more widely abused these days than so-called best practices. It's no wonder that most banks, supermarkets, airlines, retailers and professional services firms look astonishingly similar—they've been busy copying each other's best practices for decades.

What's most alarming is how ingrained their use has become in the language of marketers, salespeople and customers. Best practices have joined the long list of meaningless phrases like scalable strategies, seamless integration and transformational initiatives.

It's a rare sales team that doesn't roll out the best practices—or that closely related cousin, performance benchmarks. Best practices have become a corporate trump card because they supposedly show the best way to do whatever needs to be done.

Of course, there is value in learning from the experience and success of others. It's natural for the business community to recognize the innovative solutions or services an organization comes up with to untangle a problem or create a market opportunity. Many organizations are saddled with similar challenges, so copying may seem like the ultimate shortcut to salvation.

United Airlines, for example, saw the potential in what low-cost airlines were doing, so its executives created a new airline, TED, which is a carbon copy of their low-cost competitors' best practices.

What's Wrong With This Picture?

The problem with best practices is this: That approach lulls people into thinking that a best practice really exists that can be successfully transplanted.

Starting any project with a canned solution stifles the innovation customers expect from their suppliers. When you import best practices, the team's thinking immediately focuses on how to do the work, rather than first addressing what should be done and why. If you start with a predetermined solution, it's easy to gloss over more innovative approaches.

Granted, best practices can jog your thoughts and maybe even inspire you. But as a tool for guiding strategic initiatives, it's a real loser. One company's best practice can too easily become another company's sunk cost.

Here are four reasons you should dump best practices:

  1. They rarely work. A company's best practices work in the context of its business processes, culture, systems and people. Plucking a best practice and trying to graft it onto another organization will produce unpredictable results.

    In one instance, a company forced its entrepreneurial salespeople to adopt a tightly controlled sales process, with automated tools for all large accounts. The company mandated the new process and system because it was touted as a best practice in sales force management. After a year of trial and error, the company's salespeople dumped the tool, complaining about declining sales productivity. For the company, it was a multimillion-dollar mistake.

  2. It's a follower's strategy. In an era of demands for innovative products and services, why give your customers recycled answers? A company that really wants a customer order process that looks like everyone else's is likely to lose the battle of market differentiation. Relying on best practices will doom your customers to mediocrity in the long run, and hurt your reputation as well.

  3. Change comes from within. People rarely respond well to implementing some other company's ideas. In fact, having best practices come down from on high usually causes resentment. Let people create their own solutions using their in-depth knowledge of the company's customers, suppliers, employees and processes. That will result in ownership of the ideas and determination to get results.

  4. They don't come with a manual. Business books and benchmark reports are full of snippets about best practices, yet they rarely explain what to do with them. You may have read that it's a best practice to process a customer product return in 24 hours, but there's little guidance for meeting that objective. It's also quite possible that the organizational change necessary for your customer to achieve the goal isn't even remotely feasible.

So Now What?

On your next sales opportunity, ask your team to put best practices aside, at least at the outset. Direct the team to thoroughly explore what needs to be done and why, before jumping to the question of how you will do it.

Pull out the best practices only after you've come up with preliminary ideas for solving the problem. Maybe they will spark concepts you can adapt, and maybe not.

Develop your own best solutions to fit the context of the business. Use another company's best practices only as a last resort.


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Michael W. McLaughlin is the coauthor, with Jay Conrad Levinson, of Guerrilla Marketing for Consultants. Michael is a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP and the editor of Management Consulting News (www.managementconsultingnews.com) and the Guerrilla Consultant. For more information, visit www.guerrillaconsulting.com.

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