Dennis D. McDonald ( is an independent consultant located in Alexandria Virginia. His services and capabilities are described here. Application areas include project, program, and data management; market assessment, digital strategy, and program planning; change and content management; social media; and, technology adoption. Follow him on Google+. He also publishes on and aNewDomain.

When Do "Best Practices" Make Sense?

When Do "Best Practices" Make Sense?

By Dennis D. McDonald

Matt Elliot’s Always looking for ‘best practices’ stifles innovation makes the case that slavishly adopting another organization’s “best practices” actually stifles innovation.

It’s hard to argue with that. Simply adopting how someone else does something — without thinking long and hard about similarities and differences — would be stupid.

Still, there may be instances where adopting another organization’s best practices might make good sense. There may also be situations where doing so actually stimulates innovation. The trick is to be able to understand how the “best practice” relates to your own organization’s unique needs.

One danger is not understanding the similarities and differences among the organizations whose best practices are being compared. Let’s say you are interested in improving how your company manages its IT resources. You include in your research a comparison of your own IT management costs with other “comparable” organizations. Perhaps you find that your costs are “way out of line” compared with your industry peers. Maybe you then decide that to get your costs back in line with industry norms you need to adopt the approaches other organizations are taking to managing their own IT resources.

Does this approach to looking at “best practices” make sense? Maybe yes, maybe no. For example, the reasons your costs may be “way out of line” with “industry comparables” may have nothing to do with management problems or inefficiencies. Your organization may be unique and/or subject to external conditions that prevent significant changes to how it operates. Adopting someone else’s “best practices” in this situation might be totally ineffectual if what is really needed is thinking creatively about making fundamental changes to how you are organized, irrespective of how others in your industry operate.

In the real world, adopting another organization’s“best practices” is rarely done without thinking through at least some of the consequences, especially if such an action involves making significant changes in systems and/or processes. The process of researching “best practices,” also, can contribute to the development of innovative approaches that could significantly assist your own organization, as long as you keep the following things in mind:

  • What might be innovative for other organizations might not be innovative for yours.
  • What might be innovative for your organization might be “old hat” to others.
  • Just because something is innovative doesn’t make it good.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with examining industry “best practices” when you are looking for ways to improve your organization’s performance. Failing to do so is like saying you are unwilling to learn from other organizations.

Examining industry best practices can be an important source of potential innovations for your own organization — but only if you know how to evaluate potential innovations in terms of their relevance to your own organization.

Copyright (c) 2008 by Dennis D. McDonald

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