Bill Sanders

By Bill Sanders

Best Practices: One Size Rarely Fits All

Best Practices: One Size Rarely Fits All 150 150 Bill Sanders

Photo credit: Photo by Hans-Peter Gauster on Unsplash

Anyone that knows me well knows that backpacking, along with motorcycling and photography, is one of my primary hobbies. To assist in growing my competence as a backpacker, I’m involved in several online hiking and backpacking communities. One of the more interesting observations I’ve made is how disjointed the advice provided in these forums appears to be from the objectives and capabilities of the hikers asking the questions.

Take Through-Hiking, or Thru-Hiking, for example. The best known through hikes in the US are the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail, or the AT, PCT, and CDT respectively. Each one of these trails requires months of daily hiking at a rate of 15-20 miles per day or more. Consequently, most through hikers finish their hike with a significant loss of weight. Hikers regularly report consuming 5000 calories per day or more to keep the weight loss at bay.

Enter a hiker new to the sport asking about the best meals to prepare on the trail, and the advice varies widely depending on whether the responder is an accomplished through hiker, a weekend backpacker, or an experienced car camper. Yet each answer is often presented as a “best practice.” This is as true about gear, pack weight, and planning as it is about meals. Only occasionally do I see responders first asking about the objectives, capabilities, and experience before offering their solutions.

The best answers, or practices, are always customized to the intent and goals of the hiker. And this is just as prevalent in the world of business as it is in backpacking communities.

We live in an ever more chaotic business environment. We need to stay on top of emerging trends in our industries, with our clients, and with our competitors among many others. As owners and members of the c-suite, we are in a constant race to address that chaos with better, quicker, more effective ways of serving our clients and customers. The question is not “To adapt or not to adapt?” The question is “How fast can we adapt and innovate?”

Consequently, there are dozens of articles everyday purporting to provide “Best Practices” in practically every area of modern commerce.

Here are three reasons that “best practices” are dangerous:

Best Practices Are Specific

Every “best practice” has an origin; the more specific the practice, the more specific the source of origin. It is a best practice because it worked. But where did it work? With what company? How large was the company? In what industry? What was their business model? Where was the business in its lifecycle? Was the economy at the time in a growth phase or a recession?

Ever best practice worked for a reason and the more similarities your company has with the organization originating the approach, the more likely it is to that it may also work for you.  Culturally, how close are your company’s values to the working values of the company that originated the practice? How do the cash positions and risk tolerances line up? How much of the best practice designation is being driven by the company selling their own solution?

Best Practices Are Subject to Calcification

Before the computer revolution, businesses closed their books on a monthly basis because closing the books and reporting revenue was very time and labor intensive. It was a best practice. Practically all companies received their results well after the end of the month; sometimes a full 30 days or more after month end. Then computers came along and removed much of the labor intensity along with most of the time. We can now keep track of sales, inventory, and a plethora of other financial indicators in real time.

And yet I frequently encounter companies that don’t produce reports until days after the close of the month which is a little like trying to drive by looking in the rearview mirror.  In this case, the best practice has calcified not just in a company or even an industry, but in an entire financial system.

Best Practices Can Make Us Comfortable

Comfort stifles innovation. After all, if things are going well, why change? I hear all the same objections; “But that’s the way we’ve always done it. It’s an industry standard. It’s a best practice at <insert well-known company name here>.”

We become comfortable with the way things have “always been done.” The longer they’ve been done that way, the more comfortable we become. All habits have this effect, but they are dangerous when they are billed with the imputed authority of being a “best practice.”

Redefine Best Practices to Mean Practical Insights

None of us have all the answers to building a great company. And if we did, we’d all be wrong tomorrow because the pace of organizational change is too fast, businesses and industries are wildly diverse, and as human beings, we are all fallible. So how to respond in our quest to stay on top of the chaos?

  1. Don’t accept Best Practices at face value.
  2. Redefine “best practices” to mean “practical insights,” and then sample widely.
  3. Accept that nothing is permanent. This is an experiment, and there is no rulebook. There is no place for “set it and forget it” policymaking.
  4. Look for principles, not rules. Focus on strategies over tactics.
  5. Engage your team and then listen to its members about the results.
  6. Avoid anyone who provides best practice solutions without taking the time to understand your business, objectives, and capabilities.


Bill Sanders helps leaders and organizations adapt, grow and thrive in chaotic environments. He is Principal and Sr. Consultant with Roebling Strauss, an operational strategy consultancy that specializes in delivering dramatic improvements in organizational effectiveness, Lead Link for Great Work Cultures, a community dedicated to creating a new norm for work cultures that optimize worker effectiveness and human happiness, and an Advisor to the C-Suite Network, the world’s most trusted network of C-Suite leaders.

Connect with Bill on Twitter at @technacea.

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