Last week, I was working on a project for a client and thinking about how we needed to get the technical team to endorse “best practices.” 

Meaning, that any technology you use, there are folks out there who’ve been there, done that, thought about it, written about, and spoken about it at conferences. It makes a lot of sense to learn from what they’ve done. Or, as I learned long ago, creativity is great, but plagiarism is faster.

But, this weekend, it occurred to me that, for most of my career, I’ve avoided using the term “best practices” – because I’d witnessed how many clients were ready to kill other consultants who were more interested in talking about “best practices” than actually listening to what their particular company needed. 

While I believe in best practices, I don’t want to pretend that every idea I have is my own, and I don’t want to provoke unnecessary rage. This post, therefore, is an attempt to discuss why best practices get a bad rap.

Starting with a story

For this story, I’m not using names as I’ve seen versions of this story more times than I can count.

A 25-year-old smart kid, working for BNCF (Big Name Consulting Firm), reads a bunch of books, receives training while at BNCF, and is assigned to work with a client’s 50-year old accounting director. 

He immediately begins telling the accounting director how said director’s department isn’t following best practices.

The accounting director knows his company has grown five-fold in fifteen years without a matching increase in accounting staff.

He does not react favorably to consultant’s advice.

What went wrong

Three things can go wrong when a consultant delivers advice:

  • From cool concept to BS buzzword
  • Ideas without Experience
  • Context – will it matter in this company organization?

Solid concepts vs empty buzzwords

If you look at your LinkedIn feed, or care about such memes, you’ve probably seen things like the corporate bs generator — “progressively productize user-centric content” is a good example.

Point being, lots of ideas that start out solidly quickly degenerate into empty buzzwords. When I started consulting, “reengineering” was the fad and then a euphemism for “cutting staff and salaries.” Today, everyone in technology wants to be “agile.” Even if their software development is about as agile as an elephant on ice skates.

Ideas without Experience

Let’s assume the consultant in the story isn’t spouting empty buzzwords, and that he understands the idea and has read up on the subject.

Because he lacks experience, however, his idea isn’t going to work.

Lots of consultants think the firm they work for, the degrees they’ve earned, and the books they’ve read give them the credibility that experience provides. The “best practice” advice falls apart when clients start asking practical questions. As in, “When you did this before, what was the staff’s reaction? What was the ROI?”

Reading a book on yoga doesn’t make you a yoga teacher. 

Context – or, it just doesn’t matter

I’ve worked in many, many successful companies in a wide variety of industries.

They all shared one common trait. They did one or two things really, really well. Other things were good enough if they were good enough.

Successful executives and managers know one thing. There’s never enough time in the day to do everything you want to do. It’s really, really important to pay attention to those things that make the biggest difference.

What those things are really depends on the company.

What all this means for my use of best practices

Whenever I recommend a best practice, I try to make sure it’s based on my actual experience (which is of course improved by continual learning), and on ideas that apply no matter how much technology changes. 

Ideas like the importance of testing, monitoring, and expecting results sooner (all things which I plan to write about in the future). Or, with regard to specialization, the importance of knowing things really well before spreading out into multiple areas.

Basically, if a best practice was developed in the last two years, it’s most likely something that I’m not going to talk about with my clients.

What’s your experience? Does your company care about best practices? Have outside consultants been helpful improving your processes?

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