Best practices considered harmfull

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I’ve long worried about “Best Practices”. Sure I usually play along at the time but lurking in the back of my mind, waiting for a suitable opportunity are two questions:

  • Who decided this was best practice?
  • Who says this practice can’t be bettered?

I was once told by someone from the oil industry that it was common for contracts to specify “best practice” should be used. But seldom was the actual practice specified. Instead each party to the contract would interpret best practice as they wished, until something went wrong. At that point, after an accident, after money was lost they would go to court and a judge would decide what was best practice.

Sure practice X might be the best know way of doing things at the moment but how much better could it be? By declaring something “best practice” you can be self limiting and potentially preventing innovation.

Now a piece in MIT Sloan Management Review (Why Best Practices Often Fall Short, Jérôme Barthélemy, February 2018) adds to the debate and highlights a few more problems.

Just for openers, sometimes people mistakenly identify the practice creating the benefits. Apparently some people looked at Pixar animation and decided that having rest rooms (toilets to us English speakers) in the centre of an office floor enhances creativity. They might do, but there is so much else happening at Pixar that moving all the toilets in your organization will probably make no difference at all.

But it is worse than that.

Adopting best practice from elsewhere does not mean it will be best practice in your environment but adopting that “best practice” will be disruptive. Think of all the money you will need to spend relocating the toilets, all the people who will be upset by a desk move they don’t want, all the lost productivity while the work is going on.

The author suggests that in some cases that disruption costs are so high the “best practice” will never cover the costs of the change. Organizations are better shunning the best practice and carrying on as they are. (ERP anyone?)

It gets worse.

There is risk in those best practices. Risk that they will cost more, risk that they won’t be implemented correctly and risk that they will backfire. What was best practice at one organization might not be best practice in yours. (Which might imply you need even more change, even more disruption at even more cost.)

In fact, some best practices – like stock options for executives – can go horrendously wrong and induce behaviours you most definitely don’t want.

So what is a poor company to do?

Well, the author suggests something that does work: copying good practices. Not best but “just OK”. That works. Copy the mundane stuff, the proven stuff. The costs and risks of a big change are avoided. (This sounds a bit like In Search of Mediocracy.)

In my world that means you want to be getting better at doing Agile instead of trying to leapfrog Agile and move to DevOps in one bound.

The author also suggests that where your competitive advantage is concerned keep your cards close to your chest. Do thinks yourself. Work out what your best practice is, work out how you can improve yourself.

I’ve long argued that I want teams to learn and learn for themselves rather than have change done to them. But I also want teams to steal. When they see other teams – at home or elsewhere – doing good things they should steal practices. The important thing from my point of view is for the teams to decide for themselves.

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Because your “competitors have it” IS NOT STRATEGY

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“We need a product that does X because our competitors have a product that does X”
“Our product needs feature Y because our competitors product has feature Y.”

It makes me want to cry.

Let me clear: building something because your competitors have it IS NOT A STRATEGY.

Neither is it a particularly good tactic.

Stop obsessing about your competitors and think about your customers.

I don’t doubt that your people are being told that customers are buying the competitor product because it has X or Y and I don’t doubt that some of your people feel that if you only matched the competitors feature for feature you would win but I just can’t see it myself.

For a start, is feature Y really the only thing loosing the sale? Are the products so well balanced that this one small thing is it? And is there really nothing that your product does better?

Try this simple experiment: tell the customer that feature Y will be delivered next month and see if they decide to buy yours there and then or find something else that makes the competition better.

Now lets suppose you decide to build Y. Before you make any plans ask yourself:

While you are building feature Y what are your competitors going to be doing?
Will they stand still or will they be adding feature Z?
And once they have feature Z will you need to play catch up?

Chances are that tomorrow you get to where you want to be (where your competitors are today) only to find your competitors have something else you don’t have either.

I’ll agree this is a good strategy if you have deliberately chosen to be a Fast Follower – you can play Android to your competitors iOS. Just make sure you know why your customers will choose your Android over the competitor iOS.

Will you be cheaper?
Or better?
Or will you bundle some other goodies with it?

Before you run to where your competitors are today ask yourself: where will your competitors be tomorrow?

If you still insist on building this feature you need to

  • Make sure you do a much better job (easier to use, more intuitive, faster to produce results, better quality results, or some such)
  • OR you need to do it fast and cheap so you can spend your precious resources on building something the competitor doesn’t have
  • OR you being overwhelming resources to the table so you are going to stand a chance. Every day you delay the competitor gets further ahead, so don’t try half measures

A better approach is to find out what your customers actually need. Stop looking at the features, go back to first principles: what is the problem your customers face? what is the job they are attempting to make progress with?

How can you help your customers with this job?
How can you make them faster?
How can you help them achieve their work more cheaply? Or at better quality? – in fact, what do “better” and “quality” look like to them.

Someone – I honestly forget who – told me earlier this year that they wanted to catch-up with their competitor and overtake them.

One small flaw there: if you build features to match your competitors you can never overtake them because you won’t know what to build once you reach parity.

Put it another way, you add all the features they have today, and all the features they add while you are catching up. What do you build next? Until they build their next version (and recapture the lead) you don’t know what to build. And if you build something different you just lost feature parity.

So, go back and examine what your customers are using your tool for. Look at the job to be done, look at how your customers are doing their job and using your tool and work out for yourself how you can help customers do a better job.

Celebrate the difference, explain why you are better.

And please forget about matching the competition.

I’m old enough to remember the days when WordStar was fighting WordPerfect, AmiPro was fighting them both, and all were better than Microsoft Word. Adverts and magazine reviews would compare them feature to feature. Someone somewhere thought people bought word processors based on the number of features.

Then Microsoft launched Windows and everybody went over to Microsoft Word for Windows almost overnight.

Don’t focus on your competitors. Focus on your customers. Unfortunately that requires more work and some original thinking.

Free books and other news

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Many of you are reading this because you signed-up for a free copy of my Xanpan book.

Thank you so much! – I hope you are enjoying my thoughts, reflections and tips.

Now, can I ask a favour, please? – a few minutes of your time.

If you have a copy of Xanpan would you mind writing me an Amazon review? (thats .com, Amazon UK has a separate list of reviews – yes, it is a pain).

Please, please, please 🙂

Amazon reviews make a big difference to sales and I’d be most grateful. (Even more so for 5-star reviews!)

And I will happily give a free review copy of “Little Book of Requirements and User Stories” to anyone who would like to review that book too – mail me, allan@allankelly.net. (And if you already have a copy of Little Book please suggest some other way I can thank you for your review.)

I’m also working on getting Continuous Digital and Project Myopia onto Amazon. Both will get new professional covers and a proper copy edit

Finally, as some of you know, I’ve started writing a companion to Little Book: Product Ownership. Again I’m using the LeanPub system so you can buy the book now and get free updates as I add to the book and edit it. And I am most grateful to those of you who have already bought Product Ownership.