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5 Reasons Best Practices Suck

Best practices are like vampires that can suck an organization of productivity, drain its creativity, and bleed its initiative.

I’ve helped IT departments from automobile manufacturing companies merge. I’ve also helped banks and Internet companies merge. In all cases, I watched people who were, weeks before, like many other of their species, seeking best practices, encounter the truth of their existence. Everybody has best practices and if you compare two of them, superficial similarity soon gives way to contextual and temporal divergences. Both sides of the merger had dozens of best practices on everything from server management to customer acquisition. The harsh light of the merger exposed best practices as a source of potential conflict and dysfunction—and those who crafted the best practices realized they were vampires of learning, imbibing hopes for productivity gains and consistency while draining their organizations of creativity and initiative.

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. Flow chart after flow chart. 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 alter 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 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 the current single-minded quests await the same destiny.

True Blood  True Blood is the fictional synthetic blood product in HBO’s True Blood series 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 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 to your consciousness.

The Enchantment  Although they go by the name of communities or practice sharing conferences, those are just human names for the 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 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.

Best Practice is a forensic science, an autopsy on a corpse. 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 want your organization to excel, resist being led to the graveyard by the cult of Best Practice. Rather, be a Best Practice Slayer. Live in the moment as an agile, adaptable human being, open to the possibly 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 rather see learning as invention and adventure.

The first time you tear down an artifice and create new value, restructure a process, or eliminate a sacred cow, and learn from both accomplishments and mistakes, you will know what living really is. You will feel your heart, fueled by risk and wonder, pumping like never before.

[Image: Flickr user Ayton]