Best Practices Are Killing Us

Seeing Trible by Flickr user Foto43
"Seeing Trible" by Flickr user Foto43

A friend of mine recently made the following comment:

“[T]he dresses & hairstyles worn at the Emmy’s were really boring & predictable. Bring back the days before the stars paid stylists, please!”

While I do not watch awards shows, the comment struck me, because it applies equally well to management and leadership. Today’s obsession with effectiveness is killing individual creativity.

Organizations are mired in concern over process and practice. What’s the best way to do things? What are other organizations doing? Why aren’t we doing that? Leaders ask these and other questions, all designed to maximize effectiveness. They hire consultants who know the field, and ask them to dispense advice about what the best organizations are doing, so we can do it too.

But the problem is that they drive everyone in a given space to essentially follow the same pattern and fit the same mold. The general quality of the space goes up — but the creativity is squeezed out and new ideas tend to get killed.

Even worse, the focus on best practices leaves you blind to innovation.

For instance, think about philanthropy. Over the last ten years or so, foundations are concerned increasingly with “impact.” In an effort to maximize the impact of their investments, they now require organizations seeking money to demonstrate impact or at least the possibility of impact.

At some point, one foundation asked an organization for their “theory of change” — their basic logic model for why they will create impact. This has become the accepted practice among foundations and woe betide the community benefit organization that does not have an articulated and crisp “theory of change.”

This approach dries up the funding spigot for organizations that are just trying to help people. I can think of many soup kitchens and food pantries whose theory of change is best summed up: “We help people make it to the next day.” Foundations will see this as a band-aid approach and instead favor the neighboring organization whose theory of change might be: “If we teach adults to read they are more likely to be able to hold jobs that move them out of poverty.” Also a worthy goal, but the immediate, unsexy goal of feeding people is not a “best practice” for philanthropy.

What’s more, in today’s environment it may well be that “theories of change” and “logic models” are vestiges of old thinking. It is much harder to control how things unfold, and it is often much more effective to rely on serendipity and kismet. Think about the success of charity:water whose approach is to leverage the crowd on Twitter. Without the benefit of hindsight, think about how their “logic model” must have looked.

We appear to be at a turning point in the not-for-profit sector, where new ideas are about to take hold. But as they do, smart leaders will still leave room for new ideas and innovation, both to stay ahead of the curve and to harness the individual wacky idea, which 9 times out of ten is a failure but, when it is successful, is a real doozy.

One thought on “Best Practices Are Killing Us”

  1. I agree Brad. I see it pervasively in companies as they grow and become more complex. It’s almost like they lose confidence in how to figure out solutions and to best evolve by themselves (which is how they came of being in the first place. When there are too many outside consultants collaboration breaks down and employees can feel disenfranchised and territorial. Keep it simple, fluid and fun…

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