The Death of Best Practices

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The Death of Best Practices

The 1990’s was a decade of furious plagiarism. Companies copied companies within specific industries. Others stole from distant industries. I remember hospitals emulating hotels to differentiate and improve the patient experience. At first glance, not a bad idea. It kicked off years of creatively borrowing other’s ways of doing things.

Best practices have been a bread-and-butter service for consultants. It has fattened their bottom-line and has been really easy. Perhaps too easy. All they have had to do is look across their client roster and cherry pick seemingly winning formula to apply in another situation. However, no one talks about the force-fit of such approaches. In reality, it can be like transplanting an elephant’s trunk onto a jaguar or grafting horsehide onto pelican. It just doesn’t work.

Best practices were meant to speed-up success and enable scale, predictability, and consistency. The premise was basic, if we figure out the right way to do something in a particular situation, it should work again in a similar situation.

This is simply not true. Every business is its own organism and ecosystem. You may not believe it but The Coca-Cola Company is incredibly different than PepsiCo. Iconic ads cleverly demonstrated the delta between how Apple and Microsoft operate.

Tom Puthiyamadam leads PwC’s digital services practice, he says the consulting industry “is the poster child for pattern recognition at its finest.” He delineates between incremental gains and transformational wins, “Best practice models are great for incremental improvements; they will reliably help companies get from 95 percent accuracy on billing to 99 percent. But for transformations, in particular digital transformations, they’re less helpful.”

This speaks to a bigger problem in traditional consulting. In 2013, Clayton M. Christensen wrote in Harvard Business Review that at “traditional strategy consulting firms, the share of work that is classic strategy has been steadily decreasing and is now about 20 percent, down from 60 percent to 70 percent some 30 years ago.” Consultants have become too reliant on precedent and are no longer synonymous with originality.

Most consultancies play it safe. It would be a fair bet that the most disruptive start-ups do not engage McKinsey or Boston or Bain at the start. They do not copy what has come from before. They are in business to find a better way. That is the new best practice.