Think Strategic Planning is Bad? Try Best Practices!

Thanks Jeff for chiming in on my rant against strategic planning. It reminded me, however, that I had wanted to point to YOUR previous post about best practices so I could take my turn chiming in.

Jeff quotes Dave Pollard who wrote of legacy technologies and practices that will disappear in a generation, and best practices was #3 on the list. From Pollard:

Show, don't tell, and discuss, don't proclaim, are the information behaviours of the future. Less efficient, perhaps (stories take a while to tell, and voice is harder to browse through for fast learning), but much more effective.

I think there are problems with best practices. Certainly one can learn from studying others. There's nothing wrong with that. But like strategic planning, the concept of best practices has flaws that we don't see. Common sense tells us that we can copy what others have done to avoid "reinventing the wheel," but that is frequently NOT TRUE. A reminder came from Maggie McGary in a blog post about Groundswell. In it, she quotes one of my favorite movies, Jurassic Park. It was Jeff Goldblum's character's diatribe against the dinosaur-clone theme park:

"I'll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you're using here: it didn't require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn't earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don't take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could and before you even knew what you had you patented it and packaged it and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you’re selling it, you want to sell it!"

Commercializing dinosaur clones aside, this is an important point. A consultant I know told me a story of a project she worked on with hospitals to prevent infections in the hospital. It's a HUGE issue. Thousands of people DIE every year because they get infected while they are in the hospital for something totally unrelated to the infection. Basically, hospital staff unintentionally pass these infections around. The hospitals had tried all sorts of change management programs--they used best practices. They knew that washing your hands ALL THE TIME would basically stop this problem. But all the best practices they tried didn't move the needle on the hand washing. In other words, we knew the answer. We just didn't do it.

So instead they INTENTIONALLY reinvented the wheel. They worked within the hospital systems, with the people themselves, to identify practices that worked. When the people figured it out on their own, they actually followed through and did it.

Sometimes copying what someone else does works. If I want cookies, gosh darn it I will have to follow a recipe, because otherwise the cookies I "invent" are going to taste awful. But the challenges most organizations face these days go way beyond cookies, so we need much more than recipes. It's comforting to think that we're saving time by using best practices, just like it's comforting to think that our strategic plan will guide our success for the next three years. It's a comforting lie.

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  1. 14.08.2008 at 10:32 am

    Great post, Jamie! Re: handwashing in hospitals, there’s a great chapter about that issue in one of Atul Gawande’s books–I think it’s in “Better,” although it could be “Complications” (I highly recommend both if you like good writing that uses medicine as a jumping-off point to talk about all kinds of other things, like decision making, excellence, and why people don’t do things they know they should do). If you ever want to borrow the book, let me know!

  2. 15.08.2008 at 12:19 pm

    Medicine has something of a tradition of conservatism that hinders the adoption of new techniques and ideas. In the 19th Century, Hungarian obstetrics assistant Ignaz Semmelweis, who promoted hand-washing in chlorinated lime to prevent cross-infection, was forced to resign for trying to enforce this method of asepsis (clinical hygiene), although mortality on his wards had fallen dramatically!

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