Confusing Common Practices with Best Practices

caterpillar turning into butterfly

I work quite a bit with helping senior management teams improve the performance of their organisations and one of the most common issues I come across is the confusion between "common practices" and "best practices".

linear graph

By definition, best practice can't be common practice unless we believe that there is no innovation in management practices.

The diagram on the left is a typical innovation adoption curve first popularized by Everett Rogers.

What's often left out of the diagram is an X-axis showing the adoption timescale and while the timescale clearly differs by innovation type, management innovations typically take  20 years to become mainstream, if they ever do. If we imagine new ideas & innovations entering from the left, they have to navigate the journey from left to right, overcoming the various resistors and filters before they make it to "mainstream".

So precarious is the innovation adoption life-cycle for management ideas & innovations that they are more often referred to as "management fads" due to their failure to take hold and make it to "mainstream".

This begs the question, are innovations in management thought and practice so poor that they don't stand the test of time and real world application? Or, are many really good ideas and innovations falling by the wayside because, in an organisational context, people find it extraordinarily difficult to learn and adopt "better practices"?

Part of the challenge is the proliferation of books and articles that are just ego trips or self-marketing collateral which often achieve the opposite of their objective. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of the best selling book "The Black Swan“ is quoted as not reading business books and almost never talks to anyone who does, which is possibly a bit extreme. Whether we like it or not, new ideas and innovations generally reach the public domain via writings of some sort and some modest training in research tools & techniques can help sort the dross from the insightful.

In the past, access to new ideas and innovations was difficult and a possible reason why many good innovations never saw the light of day. In the age of the internet and Google however, that's no longer a valid excuse. If access to knowledge is no longer a valid reason for "not knowing what we don't know" then maybe a failure to seek out new ideas and innovations is the real challenge for organisations, managers and workers.

In her book "Mindset", the highly regarded Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck explains why it's not just our abilities and talent that bring success-but whether we approach them with a fixed or growth mindset.

Mindsets are "an established set of attitudes held by someone" and a fixed mindset is one in which you view your talents and abilities as fixed. In other words, you are who you are, your intelligence and talents are fixed, and your fate is to go through life avoiding challenge and failure. A growth mindset, on the other hand, is one in which you see yourself as fluid, a work in progress and your fate is one of growth and opportunity.

According to Dweck, the population is split roughly 40% fixed, 40% growth and 20% something in between. Whats truly interesting about her research is that people who have been conditioned to believe they are already really smart and/or good at what they do are more likely to have fixed mindsets and a fear of failure. On the other hand, people who have been encouraged to "try hard at being successful" are more likely to have a growth mindset and see "failure" as a learning and growth experience.

A great example she gives of the benefits to be had by developing a growth mindset early in life comes from a high school in the US who no longer give a "fail" mark on papers but instead marks them as "not yet". 

This gives rise to a number of questions such as:

  1. How prolific is the growth mindset in organisations, particularly in managers and leaders in general? 
  2. Is it possible that the hierarchical structures of organisations discourage a growth mindset and perpetuate the myth that managers and leaders know everything?
  3. Is there a particular culture that encourages a growth and learning mindset?

It's hard to disagree with the view that the world today is getting ever more complex and as such the legacy tools of "planning and control" are no longer sufficient to sustain organisations into the future. In today and tomorrows world, organisations need to build the methods, tools, structures, cultures  and competencies of learning and adaptation, sometimes called agility.

Agility in the absence of learning is the ability to move quickly from fires to frying pans or to fix whats broken instead of designing what's really necessary to survive and thrive in the new and emerging future.

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