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During my MBA study, we learned basic frameworks of business thought designed to help organise concepts and demonstrate the “best practice” methods for managing a business. We learned the theory of a particular framework and then looked at a case study, often times about a famous company like GE or Apple and applied the concepts to analyse and diagnose the problems and then offer solutions. In these academic thought exercises, the answers were so obvious and clear, and I constantly wondered to myself that if these concepts were being taught to us in an MBA, the basis of business thought, why were there so many examples of companies not following these basic best practices? How do managers and leaders of even mature organisations stray from the fundamental playbooks being presented to us in business management 101?
In my current role in an early stage company, I am often finding myself looking around for best practice examples to apply as we scale up and need to find efficiencies to take our operations to the next level. While I can understand the work-in-progress aspect of start-up culture, I still am curious to understand why obvious best practice methodologies are seemingly elusive, and how we can build the mindset to pursue excellence in our business execution. I also find myself feeling like a boring old stick in the mud citing Harvard Business Review articles in an environment that celebrates modern freshness, exploration, and creativity.
Admittedly, “best practice” is a bit of an esoteric concept. There are no official set of rules of business carved in stone that apply to all organisations for all scenarios. There is obviously a lot of subjectivity about what is “best,” and interpretation can be broad about exactly how a real world situation compares to the model case study. There are so many variables at play and it is difficult to pin-point the exact keys to successful practice. So amongst the variability in both the model and in the interpretation, people see different adaptations of the same story, drawing on different elements to support their own bias. Right from the start, just finding consensus on what exactly is “best” is not as easy as it would seem.
Additionally, best practices will change over time, and are certainly not a static set of rules on which to build religion. Evolving cultures, business models, techniques and technologies will dictate revised standards of excellence. And these standards will also require adaptation and customisation to the infinite amount of variability within organisation. In some senses, best practice is actually a moving target.
However, there are fundamentals that endure through shifting patterns that provide reference points amongst the variability. The trick is to find the right balance of building off best practice foundations while stretching out into new territory. When it comes to process and function, creativity at the margins of established norms will lead to better outcomes than starting in completely white space. Before he drew squiggly lines, even Picasso could paint a straight one.
Early in the life of a company, or even when a new department or program of work opens up, we are tightly focused on a few key goals of success. The wider vision of a scaled process is easily forgotten such that the idea of best practice doesn’t gain a foothold amongst the immediate concerns of getting something off the ground. The excitement of the new and the hopeful vision of the successful outcome is too intoxicating to be thinking about the boring elements of process and standards. This is especially true in the start-up world where we love to live by the mantra “move fast enough to break things.” But this sometimes means that we rush to create freely like Picasso without first learning to paint with Bob Ross.
And so I speculate that the basic innovative spirit that underpins the culture and drive of an early company, be it a start-up or just the early stages of a new program, product or project, is philosophically at odds with the notion of best practice. In many cases, the impetus for the new, is a rejection of the old. The mindset of thinking different naturally permeates into the practices. After all, if we didn’t re-invent the wheel, it would still be made out of stone. This drive for invention is compounded by an organisation full of engineers, who god bless ’em, are constantly re-engineering things.
Therefore, commitment to the cause needs to be baked into the culture of the organisation such that there should always be a consideration for learning from others when mapping out new functions and re-evaluating existing. I hate to sound like an MBA wanker, but turns out, continuous improvement is a good thing, there is always room to get better. It starts with recognition, right down to the individual level, firstly that we can always operate more effectively, and secondly that the effort to adjust is worth it.
In my role as an operator, I am keenly aware of the difficulties of translating the theoretical into reality. Much like the insight stored in the stack of personal development books on my bed stand, unlocking the value of best practice knowledge takes more than simply listening to the podcasts and reading the case studies. Entrenched ideas, old habits, egos and the ever present “day to day”, are all barriers I find in my crusade to introduce functional improvements in our operations.
It all begins with a cultural mindset of innovation built on tradition. We can always reach much higher by standing on the shoulders of giants.
The drive for honouring best practice needs to spring from a culture where excellence is not only understood but respected and in fact required. Like anything, setting good habits from the start pays off in dividends, and it is always more difficult to change a bad habit the further down the road you get.
I do believe that it is possible to maintain the innovative spirit and the culture of fresh thinking while being mindful of the good habits that have served others well. As a company grows, it is key to identify and implement best practice improvements early enough such that they are not a challenge to put in place once bad systems are entrenched. This way the best practice implementation is not painful and almost invisible, and we can stay focused on innovation, creativity and the vibrant, agile culture that gets us excited about early stage company building in the first place.