So you're thinking about 'best practice' for your organisation, and start looking around. It won't be long before you stumble across brochures from all sorts of consulting firms highlighting their version of 'best practice' and what it could deliver. When thinking about implementing 'best practice' in your organisation (and indeed whether it will be 'best practice' for you), it's helpful to explore the different roles of consultants and academics. It also helps to appreciate that 'best practice' for your organisation is unlikely to be found in a brochure.
Consultants, and the firms they work for, are primarily driven by the pursuit of 'practical benefit' (oh - and money). They therefore invest in developing approaches that help organisations to produce better results - and that's a good thing. Without this investment, a lot of what we know about organisations and how they operate wouldn't exist. These approaches provide practical guidance to leaders in how to achieve results. In order to protect the advantage their approaches provide, consulting firms hide them from competitors and from organisations who aren't willing to pay to use the approach. And, because of the significant investment it takes to come up with a new approach and all the supporting materials, they will only change their approach if they really have to - even maintaining an approach in the face of contrary evidence. And they're also unable to build on the good work that a competitor may have produced.
Academics are driven by pursuit of 'the truth' (oh - and being published, which leads to money). They want to know what best 'explains' or 'predicts' things we can observe in organisations. This approach means that what they develop must be open to scrutiny and to be built on by others. It also means they tend to focus on quite specific issues or questions - something where there can be a clear 'answer'. Academic ideas about 'best practice' will change over time - that's an important part of explaining and predicting. Academics also tend to only tell you when something 'works', but it is possible for others to demonstrate that it doesn't work, or that the idea can be improved. The researchers themselves are inclined to improve their ideas to make sure they're 'correct'. The problem with this level of detail and focus is that it's, well, boring. You can read an article and think 'so what' due to the lack of immediate practical application. The research is still important though, as it may be building towards something that does actually matter in practice, or perhaps it contributes to part of a bigger picture.
So that's great - you want your organisation to improve, and one way to do that is to apply the best thinking to your organisation and its leaders. How can you practically do that without buying into 'fads' and without scaring people off with 'theory'?
Armstrong and Miller give us an insight into this dilemma of explaining and applying scientific theory in this comedy sketch:
Here are some tips for applying 'theory' to your organisation:
- Start with business priorities first - Is this theory relevant to our business priorities?
- Ensure there's a demonstrable practical benefit - Will applying this approach actually help?
- Ensure there's relevance to your people and their work - Will this help address the needs of the 'end users'?
- Examine other perspectives - What do others think?
- Create, or build on, a common language - Does this help us to understand and communicate with each other more effectively?
- Balance 'ours' versus 'best practice' - Are we better to customise this to our organisation, or keep the approach unchanged?
- Involve leaders early - How can we ensure implementing the change is 'done with' instead of 'done to' leaders?
- Have the approach 'sold' by leaders who have experienced it - How can our leaders champion the new approach?
So what are the main priorities for leaders in your organisation? What have you read, seen or heard recently that you could apply to help leaders meet this priority?