“Can you share a best practice?”
By Juliana Stancampiano
As a CEO and entrepreneur, I’ve heard questions like this asked in meetings or during presentations for the better part of a decade. My internal response was always once of annoyance. I didn’t know why I thought this was a waste of the expert’s time, but it really irritated me.
Early on in my career I was part of an executive group. We would host speakers from time to time as a learning opportunity. We’d treat them as experts and they’d tell us how we should run our businesses by using their own best practices, and then they’d leave. I’d leave these sessions frustrated.
In the last year, I started to dig into the idea of best practices more and investigate this feeling because it was starting to make my skin crawl. In my business, helping Fortune 100 companies build modern learning and enablement organizations and services, the landscape gets more complicated by the day. Problems don’t get fixed with a best practice—not without a host of other changes.
The problem is that “best practice” is packed full of nuance and speakers rarely—if ever—bother to unpack the systems and circumstances in which these ideas had created success. When I hear an outside expert recommend a best practice as a key fix to a large company’s problem, I start asking questions.
- Best practice for what types of roles?
- How big is the company where this best practice was developed?
- How was that company organized? Did that org structure work well?
- What were the company’s goals when this best practice was created? Has anything changed since?
- What company values did the company culture really nail?
- Did employees consistently buy into messaging and initiatives handed down by leadership?
Over time, I’ve come to realize that many people are seeking silver bullets and quick solutions to complex problems. The forums we create for guest experts are structured for them to parachute in and deliver a few ideas that will magically put out all current fires and even prevent future problems from catching ablaze.
Consider a familiar situation. A few hundred CEOs and founders gather at a national conference for two days of speaker sessions and networking. Those speaker presentations have a familiar format: a stage, a slick slide deck, maybe a helpful worksheet and summary handed out to the audience or available through the conference app. And the assumption is that the talk will address a problem, provide a point of view, and offer a few—you guessed it—best practices for fellow executives to test out.
But what happens when an audience member decides to bring this idea back to their own company and implement it? In my work designing and implementing learning services with Oxygen, I see off-the-shelf ideas and products come from outside a client’s company all the time, and often they fail. Somewhere in the implementation, a piece of the best practice doesn’t land—maybe trainers misinterpret the idea, or the executive who introduced it isn’t in touch with the everyday realities of their employees and doesn’t realize the best practice is in conflict with an established method for success. Or even worse: What if a C-level exec wants everyone in their call centers to watch this amazing Ted Talk full of best practices, but none of the phone agents have workstations with updated video cards?
And what happens after that? Companies double down. It worked somewhere else, so they just need to do the best practice harder. Put more budget in it. Try and get the same result again.
Authors Geoff Tuff and Steven Goldbach slot the behavior of trying to adopt best practices into the larger category of conventional wisdom in their book Detonate (2018, Wiley).
“Conventional wisdom gets in the way of creativity. Conventional wisdom is what we see as the right thing to do, often without deeply thinking about why we do it. It’s what we’ve always done—the automatic, nonthinking choice.”
Tuff and Goldbach encourage their readers to question their business-as-usual procedures—to put them in context of their company’s present reality and projected future—because so many of us in business have allowed our work to be governed by conventional wisdom. And one piece of wisdom doesn’t easily or reliably translate from business to business.
The reality is that most company best practices don’t boil down to one or two actions or ideas. A best practice is dependent on the interplay of functions, teams, leadership, company values—all of those factors create an environment that’s spawned a successful process. To bring that practice from one company where it’s carefully grown into another where the system has any number of differences is extremely difficult. It takes more than a slide deck, or a company memo.
Uncovering that complexity is hard work—it can take the better part of a year or two to effectively assess the landscape for an organization with a company, fund sustainable change, and execute on it. Why go through the trouble, when conventional wisdom suggests change can be implemented by absorbing best practices from outside the company?
In research Oxygen completed in 2018, we discovered that C suite executives willingly funded training operations, but lacked the language to describe or set of defined business outcomes to measure whether or not the training was effective. Learning and Development is a $140 billion industry, and yet these executives lacked any clear direction for why they were funding training operations beyond the obvious reason of compliance. Training was just a best practice.
When Oxygen’s engaged with a client, I’ve started encouraging project stakeholders and people on my team to stop talking about best practices when we’re designing a learning experience or consulting on training strategies. Instead, we go deeper: who can share success stories from these roles? Who can give share the tools, the strategies, the conversations that helped them achieve goals? From client to client and role to role, the answers to these questions are different because the companies are so different.
There’s almost always more to best practices than just a simple task or point of view. I see the entire term as a false assumption: If you just do what I did at my successful company like this, your company will succeed, too. And I think this assumption leads many executives down a path that won’t actually work for their organization—it was too generic in the first place.
Why not change the question? Why not embrace the complicated reality that many businesses face today? What would happen if, instead of asking experts to solve major problems with a nugget of truth, we asked them to weave a richer fabric, one that included the challenges that a company and its employees faced.
“Can you tell us a story?”
- Detonate, Geoff Tuff and Steven Goldbach, Wiley, 2018. (p.5)
- “Working in a New Way”, Oxygen & Human Capital Institute, 2018. https://oxygenexp.com/research-working-in-a-new-way-modeling-the-human-side-of-organizational-success/
Juliana Stancampiano, author of RADICAL OUTCOMES, is an entrepreneur and the CEO of Oxygen. For more than fifteen years, she has worked with Fortune 500 companies, both in them and for them. Her firm’s clients include Microsoft, DXC, Delta Dental (of WA), Starbucks, F5 Networks, Avaya, and Western Digital, among others. Her in-depth experience, along with the research that Oxygen conducts and the articles she has published, has helped to shape the perspective that Oxygen embraces. To learn more, visit www.oxygenexp.com