Are Best Practices Harmful?

“That’s the way we’ve always done it.” This statement, one you have likely heard more than once in your career, should be a warning. Best practices may not be the tried and true processes we’ve relied on but rather outdated ideas that should be re-examined.

A book by Freek Vermeulen, Breaking Bad Habits, urges companies to look into best practices and determine if they still align with company objectives. He says that companies wait until they’re in trouble and then start trying to discover what went wrong. While it may seem counterproductive to start looking for problems when things are going well, that is exactly the time you should review processes to identify small problems before they turn into big ones.

Vermuelen suggests that executives begin by asking for input from managers and other professionals involved in the day-to-day running of the business. They may not hand you a problem to be fixed, but could provide a starting point. That starting point could be a question or even not knowing why a particular process exists.

Experimenting might also determine the worthiness of a best practice. This might appear to be a risky proposition but the experiment need not involve a wholesale change of product or service. It could be picking one feature and tweaking it a bit. Vermuelen uses the example of the newspaper The Independent changing from a large format paper to a smaller format. No content was changed, only the size. The smaller format sold significantly better.

Finally, he suggests “reverse benchmarking.” Instead of looking at successful companies and imitating long-held products and practices, deliberately do the opposite. South African consumer bank Capitec saw that most transactions were electronic but competitors still charged different fees for transferring money—a holdover from when money was deposited manually, by check or cash. With electronic transactions, the cost to the bank was the same no matter what. So Capitec established a flat fee.

Vermuelen’s examples and suggestions are simply a process of asking questions, taking in information, and thinking critically. Why is such a process still in place 20 years later and what if we tried X? Or, How did Y become an entrenched service offering and is it still desired by the market? Could it be improved? Fundamentally, examining best practices may help discover new ways to innovate and thrive in a competitive economy.

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