Best Practices

I have become intrigued with the constant use of the expression “best practice.” For me, the term conjures up the sense that “Since everyone else is doing it, so should we!” But such an approach to life and business is simply a copycat strategy, void of integrative thinking, creativity and innovation. How many management fads can you list that became the considered norm for conducting business because everyone else was doing it? How many of these “best practice” management fads have disappeared only to be replaced by something new that guarantees success?

How often do we compare our personal lives and activities to those of others because “it's what everyone else is doing” or “what everyone has or wears therefore so should we!”

Recently, I was career-counseling a younger individual. He was prone to evaluating his life based on where others are in their career or life. This kind of evaluation is typically based on measures such as job position, income, relationship status, car, clothes, place of residence. My advice was to never compare yourself to others, but only to compare your success in life to the goals you have established for yourself, your progress towards those goals and whether or not you have stayed true to your values in achieving your goals. If we attempt to measure our life’s value by defining it based on the achievements and goals of others, we will live a life in a state of constant frustration and anxiety.

From a business perspective, my online research into the concept of best practice leads to a hot debate, and a number of comments, which I have paraphrased and summarized below.

Best practice is a grossly misused term. It is often used as a short cut instead of thinking for oneself. If a practice is good, it should be possible to justify it in its own terms; and if not, calling it best practice will not improve it. Best practice is simply another way of saying “this is the way they do it.” And how they do it must be considered in the context in which they are doing it, which may not be the right context for me to apply what they are doing. Whether a practice is good for me or not depends on what I am trying to do with it. Just because some others in a similar (but not identical) industry do something and have judged it to be (or call it) best practice does not automatically guarantee that it will be good for me. Small differences in a situation can result in a large difference in effect. I therefore look very suspiciously on those who tell me to do something because it is a ‘best practice.’ Copying what others deem a best practice is a cheap way and short cut to failure. It ignores one’s responsibility to evaluate, think strategically and apply the right solution for the issue concerned.

The simple but consistent message from this commentary is apparent. I must not disregard the good that can be found in best practice activities as experienced by other organizations and leaders. However, I must know what the issues are for my own organization, and then determine the best solution for achieving the results I want. In formulating my solution, I must study the practices of others in their situational context or environment, but I must not copy what they do. As a leader of my organization (and my own life) I must determine what is best for the organization given the environment that we exist in.

Let’s consider the above as it applies to Apple and Samsung, as illustrated in Zach Epstein’s BGR blog post, “Samsung’s President Says Company Will Shed Its ‘Copycat’ Image.” In his post, Zach writes:

Apple branded Samsung as a ‘copycat’ in a number of its patent complaints filed around the world. While there is indeed substantial evidence to support Apple’s claim — or not — Samsung president and CSO Young Sohn says Samsung is about to become a clear leader and an innovator.

“Samsung was founded in 1938 and has a long history of successful business transformation,” the executive told Technology Review. “Today, Samsung Electronics is the largest IT company in the world. But Samsung doesn’t want to be complacent. To get to the next stage of growth, the innovation engine is critical.”

Three months ago I was given the choice to use either a Samsung Galaxy 3 or an iPhone 5 at work under a new device policy. Having been a personal user of Apple products for many years, I was enthusiastic to try something new. The S3 is a powerful phone, but I believe the assertion that it has been produced as a copycat of the iPhone. And as a copycat it does not perform anywhere close to the iPhone. Using the S3 was a very frustrating experience. After three months, the S3 has been replaced. A copycat strategy may produce short term success but does not provide long term sustainability, as Samsung's President and CSO Young Sohn recognizes above.

Let’s be careful when we bring best practices into our lives and into our organizations. Let’s hesitate to implement a “best practice” as the solution to our challenges. What works for one may not work for all. Likewise, what works for many, may not work for me.  Let’s be courageous. Let’s think, create and innovate.