15 Mar The cultural impact of “best practice” and “world class” theories
When senior management use phrases like “best practice” or “world class,” I’ve seen employees cringe! While this may be no more than an observation of a specific management team, I’ve seen the same reaction in every organization where those topics come up. Unless you want to dismiss your entire staff as slackers, it makes sense to pay attention to this adverse reaction. Because each business is unique, the response is probably some unique combination of a variety of factors.
The number one reason for this is employees have learned to recognize management by incantation. Leadership may not understand exactly how it works, but, by God, they’re going to try the latest version of “world class” and “best practices.” The high-tech sector seems to be particularly susceptible to the buzzword d’jour. To avoid this kind of negative reaction, any leader raising these two banners must be able to articulate the specific impacts on their organizations. It is not enough to set the benchmarks out there and let lesser beings scramble to meet them. Leaders will have to roll up their sleeves and help develop specific changes in process, structure and communication that will achieve and exceed those benchmarks.
Number two on the list is based on my observations that in many organizations, everybody from middle managers on down work in a different culture than the executives who lead the “world class/best practices” charge. This is especially true in knowledge-based industries such as high technology, where there’s a formal culture of vision, mission, strategy, programs and procedures. There is often an informal parallel environment of relationships, on-going peer assessment and daily evaluation that is just as critical to business success as the executives’ carefully developed formal culture. “World class/best practices,” by their very nature, are aimed at business’ repeatable and standardized formal culture elements. Staff members often feel executives don’t understand how work really gets done, a notion that is frequently only reinforced with cookie-cutter applications and inconsequential benchmarks.
The number three reason staff may not take executive’s benchmarks seriously is the unreasonably aggressive timelines that seem to be inexorably bound to “world class/best practice” implementation. Most workers try to perform well and have a pretty accurate self-assessment of how capable they are. The high-tech sector almost requires this kind of on-going self-development just to keep up. Many leaders have lost their staffs’ support over how far the journey to “world class” really is. The first step for an under-performing company isn’t “world class,” it’s parity. Skipping that first step, or giving it too little time, is a sure recipe for diminished credibility.
Am I suggesting organizations should cease comparing themselves to their peers and leaders within their industry? Absolutely not! But I’m certain there isn’t a best practice for best practices. Especially in the high-tech sector, our competitive advantage comes as much from the judgments and the creativity of our people as it does from the procedures they follow. Each culture, work environment and set of relationships is unique: Force fitting even the most finely crafted best practices will only damage that environment and reduce the productivity.
Instead, consider highly a specialized “best practices” application. High tech’s operational side is more susceptible to a “best practice” approach than the research side because of the creativity and innovation involved in research. One way to proceed is to take a “best practice” and throw it in your staff’s mental sandbox. Help them measure themselves against it, adapting what they need to exceed it and turn it into a tool of competition. In the process, they’ll probably take an absolute “best practice” and turn it into a continuously improving “better practice.” If they’re not capable of that, if the organization doesn’t have the right people on board, then it probably isn’t ready, just yet, to be world class.
Byron Glick is a principal at Coherent Partners, LLC, a technology management-consulting firm in Madison, Wisconsin. He can be contacted via the web at www.coherentpartners.com or via telephone at 608/442-0120.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.