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