Best Practice, Benchmarking and the Race to Mediocrity

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We must be different. We must be lopsided. No more herdlike regression toward the mean – we must find the things at which we’re great, and build on those – Tim Kastelle

A few years ago my organisation adopted a new way of working. We implemented it , with the help of consultants, as it had achieved glowing praise during a regulatory inspection at a similar organisation.

It was held up as an example of that most intangible of things: best practice.

We all had lots of meetings about it. We all had training. And we all did a lot of work to prepare for the arrival of this system that promised to change the way we worked forever.

You can probably guess what happened next.

Nothing changed.

In fact I don’t think I ever used it. Not once.

The problem with buying in solutions that have performed brilliantly in other organisations is that most of the time, they just don’t work.

That’s not to say they never worked. They may well have worked for somebody else, somewhere else. They may well have worked at another time. But it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to just port successful practice from one place to the next. 

The public sector predilection for best practice and benchmarking is quite perverse when you think about it.

  • Imagine starting up a new business and the first thing you decide to do is figure out who is operating in a similar space as yourself.
  • Having found them you both start a club and invite others, who are also like you.
  • Then you all start comparing your practices, processes and results and eventually work out who’s the best.
  • Then you copy them.

That’s absolutely not the route to greatness.

If everyone strives to do the same thing the same way, they will end up close to average.

Best practice and benchmarking are just a race to be first at being average. 

A quick caveat: best practice can work in some scenarios. Usually very simple repeatable ones. Chris Bolton points this out in his excellent post, but goes on to say, “The chances of someone else’s best practice working  in your complex environment (particularly if it is forced onto you) seems unlikely.”

Not only is it unlikely but the very act of best practice and benchmarking can drive standards down. It encourages all organisations to think alike. At sector level it creates groupthink , and we all know groupthink is the avowed enemy of innovation.

Within organisations a culture of following best practice can quickly become a culture that is frightened of doing new things.

I’ve heard many in my own sector say “We aren’t brave enough to do the things that (insert someone innovative) are doing, we’d rather watch and learn.”

This is a terrible mistake.

If you watch them and they fail – they have all the learning and you have none.

And if they succeed it means you have failed to keep up with them, and you still have zero learning.

Rather than regressing towards the mean let’s learn by being responsibly creative.

Try visiting lots of people who are unlike you.

The more unlike you they are the more you should visit. Connect with people via social media who are the polar opposite of you. If you are just hanging around with the sector crowd you will become more average with every passing day.

This a slide from Creating a Culture That’s Innovation Ready showing some of the organisations that we have visited and done business with over the years.

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We haven’t attempted to be like any of them but it has been a massive generator of new practices, ideas and possibilities. Never go away and try to copy them though , always adapt the idea to your own culture.

Try learning by doing.

Most of these ideas are best tested by adopting a safe to fail approach: small-scale experiments that approach issues from different angles.  We will always learn more by making our own mistakes than comparing each others (usually flattering) benchmarking scores.

Try being an organisation that only you can be. 

We are living in times when we need radical solutions to big problems. Trying to be like each other is a criminal waste of time.

The market is , as Seth Godin said , begging us to be remarkable.

We have an opportunity to be more different, more memorable and make more change than anyone else.

Who wants to win the race to mediocrity instead?

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