On excellence and best practices

On excellence and best practices

Business delivery by Mark Gibbs.

One of the consequences of the pressures of 21st century business is that while we all talk a good game about excellence, what we usually get and give out is nothing of the kind. Moreover, the bigger the organization and the more money involved the less achieving excellence there is and the more talking about it that goes on.

Excellence has become a mantra for a sort of deluded marketing that is as much about convincing the customer that we give a crap about them as it is convincing ourselves we're on the right track and doing the right things. And when it comes to "best practices" as a route to excellence I have always been suspicious about the whole approach but it took my good friend Bob Lewis to frame the problem.

On the first page of the first chapter of his excellent book, "Keep the Joint Running", Lewis articulated the issue: "Most of what's called best practice ... is nothing more than an assertion by some member of the business punditocracy that a practice that worked for one or a handful of organizations should be practiced by all organizations."

He blames Tom Peters for the market's devotion to "best practices" and describes them as "nothing more than someone's chutzpah-laden assertion that this is how to go about whatever-it-is." And when you're Tom Peters I think it's safe to say that a claim by him that something is a best practice carries enormous weight.

Now, while the "one size fits all" approach works great for some kinds of clothing it is wildly optimistic to think that something as incredibly complex and subtle as enterprise IT could ever consider a "best practice" as anything more than a good way to look at a problem or, perhaps, be useful as a template to be molded to fit the prevailing circumstances.

Of course, claims of "best practice" make for great presentation material because the words sound official; people reflexively buy in as if the proponent of a "best practice" had spent years analyzing and researching the topic and has irrefutable scientific evidence that this is the "one true way" to solve whatever it is that needs solving. It's the IT equivalent of an urban legend but we don't have a IT version of to set us straight and identify the BS.

No, true excellence is a rare thing that when achieved will be hard won and can be lost in a heartbeat. It is something that requires the entire organization to be involved with the quest driven from the top down. And, of course, the bigger the organization the less likely it is that excellence will be ever be achieved and the more likely that organizational inertia will make good enough the result.

In IT the big problem is that we're mostly engineers so we usually interpret excellence as being the same as perfection. This is a huge problem because if we admit that perfection can't be achieved then there's a tendency to fall back on "good enough" as if that's the next step down the ladder.

Here's the reality: These days there is no business without IT and what IT does and how it does it defines the organization's capabilities and viability. It is up to IT to chart the course for the organization and provide the drive for being as close to excellent as it can be.

In the 21st century being as close to excellent as you can get is as good as you can get.

Gibbs isn't anywhere near excellent in Ventura, Calif. That's in the next county. Your practices, best or otherwise, to

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