Pursue Effective Practices, Not Best Practices

Perform a Google search any time of the week on the words “best practices,” and you are likely to get north of 300 million hits. Ever since the adoption and propagation of this term by management consultants, it’s become one of the most popular buzzwords across public and private sector organizations. Along with the popularity of the term, an army of organizations has emerged, promising to act as hubs where professionals of every type can share their best practices. The world of ERGs is no different.

Unfortunately, taking a practice that people say works in one organization and replicating it in another does not guarantee the same result. In 1995, Jonathan Wareham and Hans Cerrits published a paper titled, “Decontextualizing Competence: Can Best Practices Be Bundled and Sold?” In the paper, they highlight, among other things, why best practices from one organization often fail to produce the same results in the company that is copying them: because the importers either do not understand or replicate all of the explicit and implicit organizational context that made these practices perform they way they did in their native environment.

To get a sense of what Wareham and Cerrits mean, let’s use a simple example. Suppose you learn about another company’s successful ERG practice of having members take part in speed interviews with senior executives, which result in many of these ERG members being tapped for stretch assignments six to eight months following this encounter. You dutifully copy the practice … and a year later wonder why the same response is not happening in your company.

What you don’t know is that in the company where this practice thrived, there was a long history of plucking talent from the middle and the bottom and quickly leveraging it to the best mutual advantage, increasing the diversity of the pool in this company and enhancing an existing behavior. In your company, however, stretch assignments may only be given to people who have paid their dues across many years and are next in line. So perhaps if the senior executives taking part in the sessions remember those encounters, in 10 to 15 years they might bear fruit … but not anytime soon. It’s really unlikely.

My advice to clients is to avoid the pursuit of shiny objects known as best practices and instead broaden their search and make it their goal to find effective practices. Effective practices either leverage your company resources or directly address gaps to produce measurable results. Here are three tips to get you started:

1. Hitch your wagon to your stars. Look for ways to leverage your strengths. If you already have a well-developed university relations effort, engage your ERG in making that process more effective in securing and bringing a wider variety of diversity into your organization. If your company has a great “introduction to management” program for entry-level employees, develop an ERG ramp into that program.

2. Find and spread your positive deviances. If there is another ERG in your company that is outperforming the others in meeting goals like the ones you want to achieve, find out how it is doing it and copy its process. Unlike external best practices, this practice appears to already work well within your organizational context. Moreover, if you really want to climb to the top quickly doing this, pick not one but several other ERGs that are performing better than yours in a variety of areas; perhaps one gets better speakers, another has a great management readiness prep process, etc. Again, these ERGs that are working in your context have obviously found a way to better leverage the same resources that are already available to you.

3. Finally, if you do decide to copy an external best practice, make sure you take the root and stock too and not just the pretty flower part. If, in my example of the failure of an organization to get a desired result from a best practice copied from the other company, the ERG leader had the clout or contacts to influence a change in his or her organization’s underlying behavior for picking people for stretch assignments, there might have been success there. The problem is that in many cases ERG leaders and members have neither the ability nor relationships to enact such change. As a result, they copy the pretty flower of the so-called best practice, but not the contextual root and stock that support it. As the metaphor implies, without its root and stock, pretty flowers don’t survive — and neither does this best practice.

Copying what others label a best practice may in the short term make your ERG appear to be at the leading edge, but the lack of results will soon prove different. For true longer-term performance leadership, my advice is to focus on what will get you to the results you want. Good luck!