I have a reference manual on my bookshelf entitled, Successful Marketing Planning. Produced by a former employer as a compendium of marketing “best practices”, it is well made with thick paper and color-coded tabs, and oozes confidence. But here’s the thing. The manual makes no reference to any actual successful marketing project that resulted from following the practices, I don’t recall any examples of successes that were presented with training that accompanied the manual, and I knew of no other manager who had claimed success thanks to the best practices as stated in the manual.
In fairness, there may have been well-documented successes attributable to the practices that were never revealed for some reason or by oversight, and the failures of which I was aware could have been due to poor execution of the practices. Who’s to say if the practices in my manual, or any best practices, actually “work” or not?
Defining Best Practices
The topic of what describes best practices is not a new one (see Links below). Depending upon the definition one uses for best practices, evidence may or may not be a requirement. As noted by the State Education Resource Center of Connecticut (SERC), the outcomes from best practices, even so-called research-based practices, can be dubious:
“The term Best Practice has been used to describe what works in a particular situation or environment. When data support the success of a practice, it is referred to as a research-based practice or scientifically based practice. As good consumers of information, we must keep in mind that a particular practice that has worked for someone within a given set of variables may or may not yield the same results across educational environments.”
Perhaps best practices are generated not so much as a fact-based rule set that leads to success but rather as a means to organize a group and maintain social order? Like the rules to a card game or the simplified history taught in grade school, best practices may not reflect reality but provide regulation or a good story that people will remember and agree to follow. Knowing the rules or the story plotline enables everyone to play along, avoid conflict and share a common experience. SERC also notes the downsides of best practices, particularly those with weak empirical evidence, and these stumbling blocks are likely familiar to anyone who has been involved in business for any length of time:
“Professional wisdom allows educators and family members to adapt to specific circumstances or environments in an area in which research evidence may be absent or incomplete. But without at least some empirical evidence, education cannot resolve competing approaches, generate cumulative knowledge, and avoid fads and personal biases.”
The Challenge of Evidence & Contentment
You may feel that evidence-based practices can be a more reliable route to success but that the challenges of generating evidence-based best practices in business are numerous and onerous. My own very short list of challenges places two at the top: changing conditions and effort.
As in other aspects of life, things change in business. Things change even in businesses that may be in relatively stable markets and that sell commodity products. These firms can codify certain aspects such as fine-tuning production to minimize variability in quality and reduce cost of goods. But businesses may have no control outside of their local space and time, from new competitors and technologies, to shifts in customer wants and needs, to economic downturns. During change, best practices may no longer work as they once seemed to do. Determining when the limits of a best practice are crossed, could be difficult or impossible in real-time.
Even if conditions were stable over a period of time, all other things being equal, the effort required to objectively demonstrate that a practice was really the best by some measure would be enormous. The firm would need to somehow apply different practices to numerous similar projects to see if a significant difference in outcomes could be detected. And what company would want to risk success that they believe resulted from a best practice just to see if a better, best practice was available to them?
So firms may be content to create tomes and training for so-called best practices that may or may not be useful, except that these practices help to create and maintain teams that are comfortable if not performing to their very best. This perspective of practices that are deemed best and dictated is reflected in another definition by Investopedia:
“Best practices are often set forth by an authority, such as a governing body or management, depending on the circumstances. While best practices generally dictate the recommended course of action, some situations require that such practices be followed.”
So does your company utilize best practices? Are they evidence-based or anecdotal? Do you actually use the practices? Can you demonstrate a causal link between the practices you follow and the outcomes you experience, or doesn’t causality matter? Should we rename the term best practices with another that suggests a bit less hubris?